THE GAMBIA 2011
Courtesy of Phil Wallace and Vaughan Ashby
Once again Birdfinders recorded the highest number of species of any birdtour company in Gambia in 2011 with 324 species; we seem to be making a habit of it! Numbers of species seen isn't always the most important aspect of a tour however, quality of views is more important and in this respect everyone was able to enjoy views of all the speciality birds. The first week was spent at the coast at our usual high-quality hotel complete with air-conditioning, TVs, fridges and most importantly, excellent food. We visited all the main sites where uncommon species included Red-thighed Sparrowhawk (at Abuko for the second year running), Red-necked Falcon, Ahanta Francolin, White-fronted Sandplovers, Audouin's and Kelp Gulls, Greyish Eagle-owl, Klaas's Cuckoo, Black Scimitar-bill, Brown-backed and Buff-spotted Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, White-fronted Black-chat, Senegal Batis, White-shouldered Black-tit, Yellow Penduline-tit, Brubru and Western Bluebill to name a few!
Our four-day upriver excursion went very much to plan. With the north bank road still in excellent condition we reached the main sites in good time and were rewarded with excellent views of a Savile's Bustard. Better still, whilst looking for this bird, our guide found not one but a pair of White-bellied Bustards! Singing Bushlarks were also very much in evidence at the site this year. Moving on, just six Egyptian Plovers remained at their main non-breeding site, evidence of poor rains this season, with Kittlitz's Plovers equalling them in numbers. Two major surprises were in store for us later however, with Allen's Gallinule being found (the first ever on this tour) and a family party of African Pygmy-geese. The waterholes didn't disappoint either with several Sudan Golden Sparrows and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings seen amongst the myriads of Namaqua Doves, Red-billed Queleas, Bush Petronias, bishops and weavers. During our stay on Georgetown Island we visited Bangsang Quarry to witness the spectacle of hundreds of breeding pairs of Red-throated Bee-eaters, whilst on the island itself prolonged and repeated views of Cardinal Woodpeckers and Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrikes were appreciated together with Stone Partridges, a Spotted Thick-knee, Four-banded Sandgrouse and African Scops-owl amongst others. Two Verreaux's Eagle-owls were found at their normal roost site whilst a stop at a Marabou breeding colony entertained the local children. Our 4-hour river trip highlight for some were multiple sightings of Hippopotomus but the birds also performed well with two Shining-blue Kingfishers, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Black Coucal, Mohos and numerous Swamp Flycatchers. After disembarking we visited Wasu Stone Circle for lunch and then on to another Red-throated Bee-eater Colony where 10 Northern Carmine Bee-eaters were much appreciated. The ferry at Farafenni was chaos as usual and the extremely poor road from Soma to Tendaba meant that we arrived there after dark. Our boat trip up the mangrove creeks was as enjoyable as ever with White-backed Night-herons, African Hobby, a Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Mouse-brown Sunbirds, White-throated Bee-eaters and African Blue-flycatchers being totally eclipsed by a male House Bunting in totally atypical habitat! This was the first record for Gambia for several years. The afternoon and evening was spent on the Batelling Track which was rather quiet although after dark views of several Long-tailed Nightjars and a female Pennant-winged Nightjar within touching distance was ample reward! The final morning was again spent around the Batelling track where we found both Brown-rumped Buntings and White-rumped Seedeaters to add to our lists. The bumpy road back to the coast was broken by nice stops for African Yellow White-eyes, Yellow Penduline-tits and another Brubru.
After returning from upriver we revisited several sites on the coast where highlights were Yellowbill, Green Crombec, Green Hylia and finally, a Goliath Heron. It is of course impossible to see all the birds in one trip. Cumulatively I have seen 427 species in the 26 years I have been visiting the country but we did pretty well. Of the misses, Martial Eagle, is becoming a very rare bird in Gambia as is White-headed Vulture. Black Crowned-crane is also becoming extremely rare and unreliable at their former sites, Temminck's Courser hadn't arrived at their usual breeding sites, African Finfoot is very hit and miss with the best time being at the end of the dry season when water levels are low. Similarly, Abyssinian Ground-hornbill is much easier later in the dry season when the tall grasses have been either harvested or burnt. Ironically, we missed what used to be the easiest species of bustard, Black-bellied Bustard, but again, grasses were too tall at the usual site but I guess that you can't complain as we saw two other species of bustards!
Birdfinders have been offering this popular tour for many years and use the top local birdguides to support us. The price for this tour may be low but we stay at one of the best hotels at the coast and use the best camp on Georgetown Island complete with it's swimming pool so book early for our 2012 tour before it fills as we cannot guarantee to run two tours every years as we have for the past three years. For further information have a look at the checklist from this year's tour together with the pictures below, and also take a look at the website birdmad.co.uk, which has excellent photographs taken by Phil Wallace, one of our participants this year.