In the footsteps of David Attenborough


While holidaying on Tobago we had the chance to take a snorkelling and bird-watching trip on a glass-bottomed boat out of Speyside to visit the island of Little Tobago.   While 24002328755_cfeb696f86_mwaiting at Blue Waters Inn for the trip to start an osprey was fishing in the bay.  The sea was calm in the bay, but on rounding Goat Island the rollers made the journey less comfortable for those who experienced sea-sickness.  Before docking on Little Tobago, we took a brief detour to a roosting spot for Brown Boobies where three adults and a juvenile were present.  Landing on the island was 23284135079_c11be384fb_mreminiscent of some trips to the Farnes where the step off from the boat had to be well
timed due to the rise and fall of the waves.  All safely ashore we started up the steep walkway to the top of the island.  Along the way we saw the home of trap-door spiders alongside and even on the path itself, and the burrows of Audubon shearwater.  A Trinidad motmot came quite close, but a fuscous flycatcher kept to the higher branches of the trees.  We took a breather from the climb at a house that was used by Ian Fleming while writing an early Bond novel.  23375531793_928106ba27_mThere were blue-grey tanagers feeding around the house and short-tailed swifts passing overhead.

On the next part of the climb to the top we were rewarded with views of a young yellow-headed caracara sitting on a high branch.  When we reach the observation platform we were rewarded by views of hundreds of red-billed tropicbirds as the circled around the cliffs trying to time their landings at their nest sites.  One nest was centimetres from the observation platform itself.  Also in the air were magnificent frigatebirds trying to ambush the tropicbirds on the return to the nest, hoping to force them to regurgitate their catch.  This was the site that this was fil23588954671_8f01f0311e_mmed for David Attenborough’s series The Trials of Life.  Other birds present were brown boobies in large numbers and red-footed boobies displaying all three colour morphs of this species.  A yellow-crowned night-heron flew past below us and settled on the edge of the cliff and two yeloo-headed caracara flew overhead.

All too soon we returned to the boat for the snorkelling, which some of the party decided to forgo.  The reef where we snorkelled was not in the best condition but this was the only site on the island we saw triggerfish.  The tour guide offered us the c23894124312_b05982850e_mhance to stay on the island and return later with his afternoon trip.  So when we docked to pick up the non-snorkelers, Alison and I jumped ashore to spend a quiet time on the beach and enjoying more snorkelling before the afternoon trip arrived.

We headed back up to the observation point before the next party land and the sky held even more tropicbirds than earlier in the day and we had several views of frigatebirds grabbing hold of tropicbirds, but only on one occasional wa23374129684_a98e001bdb_ms it clear that regurgitation had taken place.  Some tropicbirds lacked tail-streamers as a result of these attacks.

We had a close view of another red-billed tropicbird nest on the way down and were treated to very close views of giant hermit crab amongst the undergrowth, well away from the sea.  We returned to the main island rather tired but very satisfied with our experience of Little Tobago.

Janjanburah to the coast

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?

Black-headed heron

Black-headed heron

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.

Red dragonfly

Red dragonfly

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.

Beautiful sunbird

Beautiful sunbird

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.

White-backed night-heron

White-backed night-heron

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

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.

African spoonbill

African spoonbill

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.

Yellow-billed oxpecker

Yellow-billed oxpecker

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:

From Gatwick to Janjanbura

Trip to The Gambia – part 1

Early November is the beginning of the tourist season in Gambia and flights are still relatively cheap. The rains have ended and the countryside remains quite green – and hopefully there would still be some birds in breeding plumage. I’d booked my flight with Monarch and all accommodation and internal transfers have been arranged by Mark Thompson of Hidden Gambia. . I am here for 18 nights; not one of them remotely near a town as I will be staying in a number of eco-lodges. The lodges vary as to how far they’ve gone in reducing their carbon footprint. I’ve got 6 nights at the coast before travelling up-river, mainly by boat to Tendaba and Janjanbura (Georgetown) before returning for another four nights at the coast. This is my fourth trip to The Gambia so I’m quite familiar with the birds and the people.

The flight was delayed due to the arrival at the departure gate of two checked-in passengers one hour after scheduled take off time! Baggage handlers had been crawling round in the cargo bay trying to locate their luggage before they finally arrived to ironic applause. We then had to stop for a while on the taxi-way while the authorities checked whether we did actually have the correct baggage on board. So, after an uneventful remainder to the flight, it was a relief to be met by Mohammed at the airport. He was also able to change some cash for me. The largest Gambian banknote is the 100 dalasi, worth just over £2. Unfortunately, Mohammed only had 50s, so I was soon in possession of a very thick wad of disgustingly dirty banknotes.

First stop was Footsteps Lodge at Guntur for two nights. Footsteps runs a 12v power supply off solar panels and has composting toilets – that may sound revolting but composting toilets are remarkably smell free and low maintenance. Just a handful of saw-dust instead of a flush! More interesting was the swimming pool, just a small splash pool really, but comprising three sections: a reed-bed filter, a fine grit filter and the pool itself, which was unchlorinated. The fresh water attracted the birds with fanti saw-wing and wire-tailed swallows in constant action and occasional visits from a pigmy kingfisher. From mid-afternoon, the middle filter area was a mass bird bath with grey-headed sparrows, northern red bishops, bronze manikins, orange-cheeked and lavender waxbills, brown babblers, common bulbuls and others bathing, almost oblivious to the staff walking past.

I just took a wander round the footpaths by myself that evening and saw a range of fairly common species – yellow-billed shrike, red-bellied paradise flycatcher, hooded vulture, various doves, etc. However, I booked a nature guide for the following day and set off for a walk at first light (7.00 am). His birding skills were not great, but he was good company and knew the footpaths round and about. Good numbers of birds were around with lots of blue-bellied rollers calling, little and swallow-tailed bee-eaters, African harrier hawk, lizard buzzard, shikra, grey and red-billed hornbills, three species of sunbird, western grey plantain eater, Levaillant’s and Klaas’s cuckoo to name a few. I got my first Gambian tick of the trip when a very large warbler appeared clinging to a tall grass stem – undoubtedly a great reed warbler. By 11.30 with the sun high in the sky and the temperature around 35C, I was feeling exhausted, I’d just about consumed my water supply, so we headed back to the lodge for a cold beer. A wander round the paths that evening brought a few more species including a hybrid red-bellied x African paradise flycatcher. I was being picked up at midday the following day and a last wander round the paths in the morning brought red-winged warbler and yellow-fronted tinkerbird, a lovely diminutive relative of the woodpeckers. I photographed a tiny warbler that then took me and several other birders a few days to identify (it turned out to be a fledgling tawny-flanked prinia). Also, some patience in trying to locate the source of some calls in deep cover was rewarded with a party of western bluebiils.

Mohammed was there to collect me at 12.00 for a drive to Banjul for the boat trip to Jinack Lodge on Jinack Island. Not a true island, but an 11km sandy isthmus to the north of the Gambia river. The trip from Banjul was by pirogue, a large motorised canoe hewn out of mahogany. Apart from a member of lodge staff, I was the only passenger. There was no jetty, at either end, so pirogues are boarded by wading out and climbing in over the prow. Commercial pirogues were arriving with passengers from the north bank. These were greeted by groups of wiry men who would carry the passengers to the shore to avoid getting their clothes too wet.

On the hour trip to Jinack the air was full of terns – Caspian, royal, gull-billed and sandwich, as well as grey-headed gulls, osprey, African fish eagle and some skuas. One that I saw over-head, I identified as pomerine from its build and wedge-shaped tail, but no streamers. At Jinack, I was the only guest and the first of the season. They were still preparing the dining area and busy plastering walls. My chalet was comfortable and had mains electricity (at times), so I had a chance to recharge phones and batteries. Ants were a bit of a problem at first as the bathroom floor was a moving mass of tiny red ants – they didn’t bite, but tickled horribly when the swarmed over your feet. The staff happily sprayed the room for me while I took an evening walk to the northern tip of the island – Senegal being just a few hundred metres away. There were lots of buffalo weaver nests on trees along the beach and a few waders – whimbrel, sanderling and grey plover – along the shore. Towards the end of the island – about an hour’s walk, I started to get near the gull and tern roost. A dark, confiding bird sitting on the beach revealed itself as an arctic skua and along with the terns was a large group of pink-backed pelicans and amongst them two of the larger great white pelicans. An osprey, one of the commonest sights along the coast, was sitting with them and while I watched a group of European spoonbills flew along the skyline – distinguishable from African spoonbills at that distance by black rather than red legs. The tide was coming in rapidly, and I had to retreat a little sooner than I wished to be able to get back to the lodge; as it was I had to wade in places. Due to the tides, this was the only walk I took in this direction; the angle of the sun was wrong for a morning walk and the tide prevented another evening stroll. My days a Jinack were made up of morning and evening birding walks along the beach (11km of sand to myself – and a few herds of cattle) and relaxing on the beach during the day. This included playing with the kids, watching the staff fish and swimming in the warm water.

Having failed to find the path through the dunes to another lagoon, the manager came with me on my last evening and we spent a couple of hours sitting in from of an old bird hide, which seemed to be occupied by a very large monitor lizard, watching birds come in to roost. Mainly cattle egrets, but these was joined by grey heron, western reef heron, squacco heron, great white egret, European spoonbill and long-tailed cormorants. Broad-billed rollers were drinking from the pool while malachite and woodland kingfishers fished around the margins. Senegal thickknees sat under a tree, while monitor lizards ambled past, and a crocodile swam across the water. On the last morning we walked across the isthmus to the village, with some great birding along the way (I should have done this walk earlier) to take the pirogue from Jinack village and around the island, arriving back at the lodge on the sea side for breakfast. Unfortunately, the wind had got up and the shore-break was huge, so getting on and off the pirogue was eventful and wet. I reluctantly agreed to the carry on/off but wish I’d just waded; I could not have got any wetter! I would not claim Jinack to be five-star accommodation, but it was about the most relaxed and relaxing place to which I’ve ever been and I would certainly recommend it.

On the return, there was lots of traffic on the roads through Banjul due to the national election campaign and as we went round the monument to the return to civilian rule, I glanced at my watch and it was 11.11 am on 11 November 2011! After an overnight stop back at Footsteps where we were treated to a Kora recital after dinner, it was time it head up river. (A Kora is a traditional stringed instrument constructed from a calabash. The long strings are tuned to an open tuning and hence it is somewhat like a harp or lyre). After a 2 hour bus trip, we joined the Solar Queen at Bintang creek. The boat is an interesting attempt at ecological river transport. It is equipped with an array of solar panels that charge batteries that power an electric motor. These are supplemented by a diesel generator as the boat can only do about 5 knots on solar power alone. When functioning correctly, it reduces carbon fuel use by about 40% – unfortunately the generator was having hiccups at the time I was there and we had to use a petrol outboard for added power!

From the boat we saw ospreys, fish eagles, black kites, palm-nut and hooded vultures, African spoonbills, pied kingfishers, various herons including goliath heron, gulls and terns, pelicans, bee-eaters, weavers and a variety of smaller birds. During a loo break before getting on the boat I missed a red-necked falcon carrying a northern red bishop: expletive deleted!!! It took 4-5 hours to get to Tendaba where we just had time to check into our rooms, much improved from my last visit 3 years ago with new bathrooms, before joining a canoe trip through the mangroves on the opposite bank. The trip turned up lots of herons of various sorts – grey, goliath, purple, squacco, western reef, little, intermediate and great egrets, black-crowned night heron, anhingas, malachite, woodland, blue-breasted, grey headed and pied kingfishers, various bee-eaters including the local speciality the white-throated and mouse-coloured sunbird, which is a mangrove specialist with lots of its hanging nests visible. There were also plenty of waders – whimbrel, common, green and wood sandpipers, redshank, black-tailed godwit, ringed plover, etc. We missed out of the local speciality, the white-backed night heron although I did see it later on the trip down river, but found an African scops owl roosting low down in the mangroves.

Dinner at Tendaba is a sociable and communal event where I met bird guides that I knew from previous visits to The Gambia. I decided to dip out on the after dinner dancing display and have an early night to catch up on my field notes. There is electricity during the evenings, so another chance to recharge camera batteries. A morning stroll around the disused airfield did not bring many new species – lots of Senegal parrots and rose-ringed parakeets, and the lovely Namaqua dove. The bird guide identified some small finches as quail finch, but I didn’t get good views. After breakfast, it was time to get back on the boat up to the bustling ferry port of Farafenni. Farafenni has a couple of fairly small very rusty ferries that shuttle across the river. Along the roads leading to Farafenni and lines of Senegalese lorries, which have to wait up to several days to be able to cross the river. The road leading to the crossing is an appalling rutted laterite road. However, the Senegalese lorry operators obviously still this more cost effective than taking a long road route around The Gambia to get to the other part of Senegal. There are signs that the road is being upgraded, but the stretches of new road were not open, although some looked complete.

The next section of the journey up-country from Farafenni to Kuntur was by road, which meant it was possible to stop at some key birding spots close Ku-ur and Panchang. At a waterhole, there were clouds of finches coming to drink, which included pin-tail and exclamatory paradise whydah, bronze manikin, red-headed quelea, cut-throat finch, bar-breasted firefinch, blue-cheeked cordon bleu, black-rumped waxbill and cinnamon-breasted bunting. We missed Sudan golden sparrow which another group saw shortly after we left. At another stop there was a vast flock of collared pratincole, along with various waders and plovers including the Egyptian plover or crocodile bird. Another group arrived while we were there and convinced themselves a resting plover with its back towards us was a Kittlitz. Far from convinced, I photographed the bird and later identified it as a Forbes, a new bird for me. I did see another on the trip down. Another pool revealed black crake, purple gallinule, common moorhen (not so common), white-faced whistling duck and pigmy goose. Grasshopper buzzard added to the list of raptors.

At Kuntur, we joined another boat, a traditional pirogue with an upper deck, called the Lady Hippo for what should have been the last leg of the trip to Bird Safari camp on Janjanbura. This trip took us close to the islands that have become a rehabilitation centre for chimpanzees, originally started by Stella Brewer, and there are now breeding groups on three islands. The original stock came from chimpanzees that were seized from illegal traders and the pet trade. (For more information on the project see: The apes eat naturally growing fruit and plants and hunt red colobus and green monkeys, but have supplementary feeding every second day as the islands cannot fully sustain the chimpanzee population. Feeding is from boats at set feeding stations, on if you get there on the right day there is a good chance of seeing chimps. We were on the wrong day and only saw a couple of chimps, although we were aware of their presence from the noise of hooting and the crashing of the vegetation. We also had our first encounter with hippos just before our engine failed in the dwindling light and left us drifting close to an island with a very vocal and active, if invisible, group of chimps. As it got dark and fire-flies became active, we decided it was time to exhaust the ship’s supply of wine, while we waited for rescue. Boats set out in the dark from both our embarkation point at Kuntur and our destination at Janjanbura. After another hour, and the insect were getting a little too active, the boat from Kuntur reached us first and we boarded to return to our starting point and continue the journey by road. By the time we reached Bird Safari Camp, the Lady Hippo was tied up at the jetty – the other boat arrived shortly after we left with a replacement coil for the outboard. In some ways, that period of quiet in the dark on the river listening to the chimps turning in for the night and the hippos snorting in the river as they prepared for an night’s grazing was one of the best parts of the trip – the lubrication of the warm red wine probably helped.

For further images of birds and The Gambia visit:



Handheld HDR

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography remains something of a controversial subject – some people love it, become obsessed by it even, others hate it.  Personally, I like it for some subjects and some situations, but don’t use it that frequently.  All the books on the subject and most of the accounts on the web emphasise the need for a tripod to maintain a perfectly still camera between shots – but doesn’t that limit the opportunities for you to use HDR.

HDR from single RAW

Tone-mapped from single RAW

Out for a walk with your friends and you spot a derelict building that’s just crying out for the HDR treatment, but no tripod!  You don’t carry a tripod every time you go out for a walk – what do you do?  Well, you can take a single RAW image and tone-map that, either directly from a single image in a program like Photomatix, or by creating three or more images in the RAW processor (e.g. Adobe Camera RAW) and then tone-map them.  This can work out fine, as in this image of an old Scammell truck.  Here, I wanted a slightly grungy effect but without the vibrant colours that often result from HDR processing, so I turned down the saturation considerably.

5 shot HDR

Five shots at 2 stop intervals - auto-bracketing

HDR programs are improving all the time and most now include some degree of image alignment.  I wanted to find out how good this was, so tried some three shot HDRs hand-holding the camera while using auto-bracketing.  I found that actually Photomatix and Artizen could cope very well with three-shot hand-held image alignment.  As my Pentax K20D allows five shots for auto-bracketing and up to two stops between exposure, I then experimented with five-shot HDR, hand-held and, while I can’t say there have been no disasters, more often that not it worked just fine.  In this shot, taken under a bridge in Taunton, for instance, I wanted to capture the detail of the structure under the bridge, but not bleach out the areas in sunlit either side of the bridge.  As you can see, it was dark enough beneath the bridge for there to be electric lighting during the day.  I also wanted to maintain a fairly natural look.

3-shot HDR

Moving people can cause gosting

The problem of mages with people in the frame is more tricky and it is the ghosting rather than camera movement from hand-holding that can be the problem.  There are anti-ghosting settings you can use, and I have found Photomatix better than Artizen in dealing with ghosts, but you may end up with some painstaking work with the clone and blur tools before you get an image you are happy with.  I like the “toy town” look you can get with using HDR on street scenes: well worth playing around with.

3 shot HDR

3 shot HDR and Topaz Adjust filter

Just occasionally it is fun to depart from realism completely and go for a more “air-brushed” or painterly image.  This was a three-shot HDR taken from my office window in Bournemouth.  The HDR processing was followed up with some tinkering with Topaz filters (I use these mainly for noise reduction, but occassionally for special effects).


None of these shots involved a tripod, so don’t be put off trying HDR just because you don’t want to lug a tripod around with you all the time.  When trying out HDR, set your camera to aperature priority, and select the aperature you want for the required depth of field.  Push the ISO up a bit as the exposure length will get a bit long when over-exposing by up to four stops.  Also, set your white balance manually, as you don’t want the camera to change the white balance settings between shots.  If possible lean on a lamp-post, or prop your elbows on the back of a seat, then just gently press the shutter release and let the camera and software do the rest.

Beguiled by the people

In January this year (2011), I joined an Explore UK trip for a two week Maasai womancamping safari in Kenya and Tanzania.  The opportunity to photograph the wildlife was the main motivation for the trip as well as African sunsets with silhouetted acacia tress.  However, it was the people that captivated my interest as much as, or possibly more than the wildlife.  In Kenya, we visited a Maasai kraal, where of course we were treated to some dancing, first by the young men and then by the women.  The Maasai are a beautiful people with strong bone structure and great poise and very welcoming.  Photography is a bit of a challenge due to the intensity of the sunlight and consequent depth of the shadows, when outside and the darkness of the interior of the huts.

In Tanzania, there was an opportunity for just a small group of us to visit the Datoga mother and childcompound of another pastoral tribe, the Datoga.  Head of the household was a charming 75 year old patriarch who had 9 wives and had just fathered his 45th child.  The smaller number of visitors and the fact that the guide was related to the family made this a very intimate and relaxed visit with little of the tourist performance and more chance to talk, through the guide/interpreter, to the family.

Very different was a visit to a group of Hadzabe bushman, oHadzabene of the last people in East Africa that still maintain a hunter gatherer lifestyle and are permitted to hunt game in the National Parks.   Using bow and arrow, they hunt in the forested areas where both species of kudu are the prefered target species, but even dik dik make a tasty meal for the group, as I can testify.

More of my images of East African people can be found on my Flickr pages.




City waterways

Aarhus City, Denmark

Sometimes its good to go back to images that were taken some time ago to look at them with a fresh eye and and see if there is a different way to process the shot – a different crop, a different approach to contrast and saturation, reducing noise or possibly using a filter.

Here are some images of city waterways.  The first one is a shot of a canal in Århus, Denmark’s second largest city.  It was taken in 2006 on my first DSLR, a Pentax *ist DS using the standard kit lens.  I was in town for a vocational training conference where I learned about the “fish-box” approach, but that’s another story!

Malmo, SwedenThe second images was also taken while at a conference, this time in Malmö, Sweden in 2002. This image was taken with a Nikon Coolpix 775, 2mp point and shoot camera.  When the light was right it produced some suprisingly good images.  Later, equipped with a waterproof-casing it gave me ours of fun chasing elusive fish, although none of the results from this are worth revisiting!

Lastly, a slightly newer image taken in DublinDublin in 2008.  This time it was my wife who was attending the conference and I just went along for the ride and the opportunity to explore Dublin with my camera, a Pentax K10D and one of the first outings of my Tamron 18-250mm lens.  The waterways through Dublin, including the Royal Canal and the River Liffey, give endless photo opportunities.  This was at the start of the “sub-prime” financial crisis and seeing a copy of the Business pages of The Irish Times slowing floating down the Liffey seemed to sum up the mood.

Business sinking


Red light of dawn

It’s amazing the difference it makes to be up at dawn!  The light, the textures, the colours are never quite the same at any other time.  Sometimes it is the mist, sometimes the hint of the sun peeping above the horizon, but sometimes it’s just overwhelming.  This shot was taken on the River Gambia at Bird Safari Camp, just before the sun rose above the horizon.


Dawn at Janjanbureh