THE GAMBIA 2003
The Birdfinders group enjoyed another highly-successful tour during 14–28 November 2003. Although the total numbers of species seen was 307, slightly down on previous years due to a distinct lack of Palearctic migrants, (our average being about 320), the quality was definitely there! It is always difficult to pick highlights especially as they are so many and varied in this wonderful, friendly country but I will try. So, in species order: the often elusive White-backed Night-heron was particularly co-operative this year whilst African Pygmy-geese were found at a new site. Raptors were very obliging with fantastic views of two White-headed Vultures, a rare sight in Gambia these days, alongside White-backed and Rüppell's. Bateleurs were especially common with no less than 10 birds seen on one day. In a veritable feast of eagles, Tawny and Wahlberg's Eagles were seen soaring together for a unique comparison, Beaudouin's, Brown and Western Banded made the hat-trick of snake-eagles, African Hawk-eagle and Long-crested Eagle were both seen on multiple occasions and best of all, we had three sightings of the mighty Martial Eagle. A melanistic Montagu's Harrier was found at Kau-ur alongside a Pallid Harrier and a single White-crowed Lapwing lingered from the rainy season, together with good numbers of Egyptian Plovers. African Hobby, Lanner and Red-necked Falcon were all seen perched and in flight.
Black Crowned Cranes are now difficult with Pirang off-limits so we were pleased to find them at a new site. A Temminck's Courser's nest (two eggs) was found on the north bank whilst watching an Abyssinian Ground-hornbill, and Spotted Thick-knees were seen on no less than three days including three seen in daylight. Audouin's and Kelp Gulls were seen at both Tanji and Banjul whilst a Baltic Gull was extremely unusual in Banjul. Seven Brown-necked Parrots were seen at a new site near Pirang and, once again, cuckoos were well represented with Levaillant's, Klaas' and Diederik being expected but Great Spotted Cuckoo definitely unusual. As usual, we recorded good numbers of owls with African Scops-owl, White-faced Owl, Verreaux's Eagle-owl and Pearl-spotted Owlet all seen in daylight. On a night drive two species of nightjar were seen, Long-tailed and Standard-winged, the highlight for many being a full breeding-plumage Standard-winged male complete with standards watched from six feet!
Colour was definitely the order of the trip with every species of bee-eater on the Gambia list seen but as usual, Northern Carmine Bee-eaters stole the show with nine seen at Basse. With the exception of Shining Blue, all the species of kingfisher were also seen including multiple views of the often difficult Grey-headed Kingfisher, plus we got all of the rollers. Black Wood-hoopoe is never easy to find but we have seen it for a number of years. Also this year we managed to find the extremely-rare Spotted Honeyguide making the rare achievement of all three species on the Gambia list seen on a single tour! It was a good year for woodpeckers with both the often-difficult Cardinal and Brown Woodpeckers seen well together with the more common Grey and Fine-spotted. The normal site for Yellow-throated Longclaw had been damaged by an oil-spill but we found one elsewhere where we also found another very difficult species, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, plus breeding plumage Yellow-crowned Bishops. Grey-headed Bristlebill gave amazing views in Abuko alongside Green Hylia and Yellow-breasted Apalis and many Collared Sunbirds.
From the gaudy to the hard-to-identify and cryptically coloured: six species of cisticola included Singing, Whistling, Winding, Siffling, Rufous and Zitting whilst both Northern Anteater-chat and White-fronted Chat were seen displaying at breeding sites. We did extremely well for shrikes and their allies with Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, Grey-headed and Sulphur-bellied Bush-shrikes, Brubru, Senegal Batis, White Helmet-shrike, Northern Puffback, Black-crowned Tchagra and Yellow-billed Shrike. Yellow-bellied Hyliota, African Yellow White-eye, White-shouldered Black-tit and Yellow Penduline-tit can all be difficult but we found them all including the nest of a penduline-tit. Copper, Mouse-brown and Pygmy Sunbirds were seen in addition to the commoner species of sunbird and all of the weavers were seen in breeding plumage: Black-necked, Little, Village and Yellow-backed Weavers and Heuglin's and Vitelline Masked-weavers. Western Bluebill was nest-building in Abuko whilst this year both male Brown-rumped and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings were seen. Good views of male paradise-whydahs on the north and south banks of the river showed slight differences in tails shapes indicative of Sahel (Northern) and Exclamatory (Long-tailed) Paradise-whydahs respectively.
Birdfinders has the perfect itinerary for this tour: seven nights at the coast followed by four nights up-river and the final three nights back at the coast. This ensures that you have enough time to see all of the specialities up-river but still have the opportunity to catch up with any species you may have missed earlier at the coast. Some tour companies try to cram this all into a week, spending just one night up-river but, this is far too short a time to enjoy all of the special birds.
With the exception of the diurnal Pearl-spotted Owlet, owls are never easy to see in The Gambia and to see five species was pretty impressive. A pair of Greyish Eagle-owls with a juvenile watched at daytime roost was a remarkable sight especially as there are few modern records and no breeding records at all. Verreaux's Eagle-owl and Northern White-faced Owl were both more difficult to find than usual this year but we persevered and were rewarded with outstanding views of both at daytime roost, whilst an African Scops-owl was watched just a few feet away by spotlight at Bird Safari Camp. Long-tailed Nightjars were plentiful at dusk along the north bank road and we found several female Standard-winged Nightjars at roost along the Batelling Track at Tendaba. So on to the kingfishers and bee-eaters and I am pleased to say that we recorded EVERY species of both genus this year. Most of the kingfishers are of course fairly easy to find but not so the Grey-headed Kingfisher, which is very local yet we saw it five times. More remarkable however was the pair of Shining-blue Kingfisher seen upriver. The bee-eaters are many people's favourite birds and rightly so with their stunning colours. Once again we enjoyed great views of Northern Carmine and Red-throated Bee-eaters as well as the often-difficult White-throated Bee-eater but it was the Green Bee-eater that was the real rarity.
Abyssinian Ground-hornbill can often be elusive considering their size but enjoyed two sightings whilst the Spotted Honeyguide was still at its usual site at Marakissa. Cardinal Woodpecker was seen once whilst the local Brown-backed Woodpecker was seen on two occasions. A Grey-headed Bristlebill was coaxed into view at Brufut Woods whilst Oriole Warbler gave great views at Marakissa and Green Hylia proved easier than usual to see at Abuko. A total of five Yellow-bellied Hyliotas would have been quite remarkable if it hadn't been for the Lead-coloured Flycatcher singing and displaying at the same time! As usual, there were lots of Swamp Flycatchers upriver but we enjoyed our best views ever of a pair of displaying African Blue-flycatchers at Tendaba. Northern Crombec is always a nice bird to watch but Green Crombec in Pirang Woods was surprise. Yellow Penduline-tit and African Yellow White-eye both gave good views whilst some of the uncommon sunbirds seen included Mouse-brown, Western Violet-backed, Collared, Pygmy and Copper. The difficult Senegal Batis and Brubru were seen on a couple of occasions but eclipsed by several sightings of the rare Square-tailed Drongo.
Sudan Golden Sparrows were numerous on the north bank this year whilst Western Bluebills were in Abuko as usual. With perseverance, we enjoyed great perched views of Black-faced Quailfinch (split from African Quailfinch) and we also had to work hard for African Silverbill as well, with just a single sighting at Kotu on the last full day. White-rumped Seedeaters were in good supply along the south bank road this year but it was the buntings that stole the show with not only the usual Cinnamon-breasted Buntings at the waterholes upriver but also a beautiful, singing, male Brown-rumped Bunting. As if this wasn't good enough, we also found no less than three of the extremely rare House Buntings at Bansang Quarry.