THE GAMBIA 2007
The Birdfinders experience in The Gambia just seems to go from strength to strength. This year we enjoyed a month in the tiny West African country running two separate back-to-back tours. We can only describe the success of each tour as phenomenal! Both tours were characterized by extremely high species totals with 333 on the first, and the setting of a new Gambia tour record of 353 species on the second. The previous best, also set by Birdfinders back in 2005, was an impressive 340 species. By the way, the 353 was achieved purely within The Gambia with no side trips into Senegal.
Of course achieving a large species total is just a fun element to the tour. Most of our time focused on finding all of the key species to be expected in The Gambia but at a relaxed and comfortable pace. The two tours differed markedly in terms of weather, the first being mostly hot, sticky and humid. The second was much cooler and more temperate, with a cooling northern breeze for much of the time.
With this background we found most of the key birds and also came across a number of species that shouldn’t really have been in The Gambia! Notable amongst these were several of Palearctic rarities including White Stork (one flock of about 2000!), European Honey-buzzard, Jack Snipe, Grey Phalarope, Roseate Tern, Grasshopper Warbler and Ortolan Bunting. However, it was really the scarcer, more elusive African species that fired the imagination of our groups and here we did especially well including the finding of an unprecedented trio of bustards: Savile’s, White-bellied and Denham’s Bustards were all recorded on the second tour, with Savile’s also being seen on the first. All of these are rare or unknown in recent times we did exceptionally well to document them all! We also had a wonderful time with owls finding Barn Owl, African Scops-owl (including two at a daytime roost), Northern White-faced Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet, and Verreaux’s and Greyish Eagle-owls. Both tours recorded all the possible bee-eaters and sunbirds in The Gambia, and the first tour recorded all of the possible kingfishers too, including Shining Blue! Of the rarer raptors, White-headed Vulture, Martial Eagle and Ovambo Sparrowhawk were seen especially well but on the second of our two tours we were totally unprepared for a pair of Bat Hawks that we discovered ‘up-river’ one evening whilst waiting for owls. Our local guide, Solomon Jallow had seen Bat Hawks on just four previous occasions during the course of fifteen years of guiding in the country!
Egyptian Plover and African Finfoot are amongst the most sought-after species in The Gambia and at the top of many-a-birder’s list. We saw both of these very well, though we only got the African Finfoot on the second tour. No less impressive was the Ahanta Francolin, which we coaxed into view at Abuko, a bird that is heard much more frequently than seen. We were also thrilled by the discovery of a Golden-tailed Woodpecker near Tanji on the coast.
For many, the most memorable part of the itinerary was the ‘up-river’ trip, which includes some long drives, traveling to Georgetown in the Central River division. In total, we spent four nights away from the coast in rather rustic but welcoming river camps. Traditionally, we’ve always begun by heading inland on the South Bank road to Tendaba Camp which we repeated on the first tour. But a change in the itinerary for the second tour saw us cross the Gambia river on the Banjul to Barra ferry which was a great experience, along with an improvised breakfast in Barra. From Barra we enjoyed traveling on the North Bank road all the way to Georgetown, giving us an opportunity for new birds, including Chestnut-bellied Starling, visiting some exciting new locations including the vast Bao Bolon wetlands. Here we viewed only from the road but it was clearly a very important bird area with huge concentrations of water birds, including the above-mentioned White Storks. Equally impressive was the concentration of about 3,000 Collared Partincoles at Ka’ur wetlands, where we also enjoyed Comb Ducks, Egyptian and Kittlitz’s Plovers. The famous waterholes on the north bank road were extremely busy with passerines where we found an Ortolan Bunting on the first tour, hundreds of Red-billed Quelias and plenty of Sudan Golden Sparrows. Yet another waterhole along the north bank road yielded two magnificent White-headed Vultures at close range. Surely, this must be the Old World’s most attractive vultures!
Both of this year’s tours were full of exciting moments such as this, and working with the most respected guide (Solomon Jallow) and the most reliable driver (Aladin), Birdfinders has a formidable team, and perhaps the best itinerary available for a two-week trip. It’s an outfit that will be difficult to better in The Gambia!
Special thanks go to Solomon Jallow once again for his wonderfully relaxed manner and great humor, and to Aladdin for his tireless, safe driving as well as providing cooling refreshment throughout the trip. Extra special thanks go to all 24 participants on this year’s trips. Once again on a Birdfinders trip, everyone contributed to some excellent bird finding and, without their efforts, the very high species recorded this year would not have been achieved.
James P. Smith