The Gambia - February, 1999
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For those wanting an easy to arrange a trip with over 200 mainly exotic species in a week, The Gambia should be high on the wanted list. We stayed in a package booked hotel, with birding on the doorstep and within easy reach of the resort. The Kotu Stream area seems to hold most of the hotels, and one of these (Badala Park, Bungalow Beach, Kombo Beach or Bakotu) is probably the ideal base, since the surrounding land offers a good mix of habitats - including coastal scrub, woodland, river, marsh, and open farmland - giving a high number and variety within walking distance. Area covered later such as the Kotu Stream, Fajara golf course, Casino cycle track, and sewage farm are all within minutes of the hotels mentioned.
The people in The Gambia proved without exception to be very friendly, and I believe violent crime is almost unheard of. The down side is that there is constant hassle from almost all - for genuine curiosity to begging and offers for paid guiding (both birding and otherwise). We got used to this and didn't find it a problem, but it may put some off (you can always cop out and spend a week by the pool!). A general rule seems to be polite but firm, and don't give in to the begging, since the feeling of other Gambians is that this would just compound the problem.
For convenience, we booked a half board package at The Badala Park, where the accommodation was basic yet adequate, and the food quite tasty. We were careful to drink only bottled water and only once ate out of the hotel (giant prawns at a beach bar - highly recommended), and had no major stomach upsets. The array of jabs pre-holiday included tetanus, typhoid, Hepatitis A, yellow fever and polio on a spoon. Anti-malarial prophylaxis is also a must - mosquitoes were few and far between but we did get the odd bite, so better safe than sorry. For those taking mosquito plugs for the rooms (the odd bug found its way in) be prepared with a British 3 pin adapter, which our rooms had as standard.
The currency is the Dalasis, with the exchange rate 17 to the pound during our stay. This was at the hotel, and not quite as good as the exchange booths (there is one opposite the Bakotu), but much better than the airport and back home. Sterling is regularly taken (and preferred by some), but it is generally better to have a sum of Dalasis on you.
Weather and timing.
Our trip was during the Early Dry Season. The wet season is mainly during August and September, with some rains still during October. Because of this and the loss of breeding plumage by many birds shortly after, November is generally considered to be the best time to visit (with December second best). However, we still had a combined trip list of over 230, which is probably a total similar to that for the "better" months, and the drabber plumage of some (mainly Finch types) is balanced by the better views, since crops have been harvested and a lot of the vegetation has died back leaving more open land.
The weather during the whole week was hot and sunny (apart from a slight mist on the first full day), but a North to Easterly moderate wind in most areas near the coast kept the 90+ degrees more palatable. Sun cream or sun block is a must, as are decent walking shoes. Shorts are also ideal for the temperature, but we sometimes put up with the discomfort of trousers to fend off the many spiked plants that occur.
Dawn was just before 8am, and dusk around 7:30pm.
One of the most common things we heard was "hey birdwatchers", particularly in the Kotu Stream and Golf Course areas. This is because many of the locals have gathered that a guide is more or less a must for we "twobobs", and so they are legion. From our perspective, a guide is essential for the sites away from the Kotu Creek, not just to find the birds, but also to find your way to and around the sites, and to fend off the usually persistent locals. The problem is finding the right one, since they vary from good to useless. In reality there are probably less than 10 experienced birders worth their salt, so we were lucky to find Barry (Momodou W Barry, c/o Grant Street, Banjul, Tel: 461201 after 8pm) who was generally very good and we would very much recommend. We also came across Seedy, who also seemed to know his stuff. Barry's strengths were that he knew the sites and had a good spotting eye, but we found it best to always double check identification. A full day with him cost 10 each, and he organised the taxi himself (another 600 Dalasis).
For those wanting to arrange their own transport, which is only a good idea for some of the local sites and Abuko, the green tourist taxis are present outside all the hotels, and they are used to ferrying birders around. The yellow taxis are for locals, since they are allowed to pick up from the roadside, and are probably less well controlled and maintained than the greens. The latter also have boards displaying standard ferrying and waiting fees near them.
Rob Wards "Birdwatchers' Guide to The Gambia" is excellent for site maps and general birding information. A road map isn't needed.
For identification, the new guide by Barlow is all that is necessary, although a copy of the Birds of West Africa is useful to look up the birds and names used by the guides - most use a battered copy of this as standard.
Kotu Creek and Ponds
The Lower Bridge spanning the Creek is a good place to start. From here there are good views of the open water and vegetation of the Creek, and it is here that most of the Gambian bird "experts" will be found. Plenty of waders, Herons and Kingfishers can be seen from here, as well as close views of regular Wire-tailed Swallows. A very good and not obvious spot is a leaking pipe under the trees. It is found by taking the first track on the left to the North of the lower bridge, which goes to the Kotu Strand Hotel. The pipe is under the trees on the left, about 30 metres from the main road. Birds here included our only Oriole Warblers and Yellow-throated Leaflove of the trip, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat and Yellow-crowned Gonolek.
The gardens of the hotels in this area are also worth checking, in particular for Sunbirds. The Ponds next to the bridge allow close approach to a variety of water birds - Black Egret, Hammerkop, Senegal Thick-knee, Sacred Ibis, Oxpecker and a mobile Malachite Kingfisher were all regular.
Any sewage works abroad are a must, and the 30 Dalasis fee for the ones opposite the Badala Park Hotel are no exception. There are 4 rectangular pits which act as a magnet for waders and White-faced Whistling Duck, but the openly wooded area next to them are also worth a look (Fine Spotted Woodpecker, Bearded Barbet, Shikra and flocks of Red Bishops).
Fajara Golf Course and Atlantic Road
The golf course is well worth a visit for extra species such as Splendid Sunbird, Blue-eared Glossy Starlings, and roosting White-faced Scops Owl. We didn't have time to try for the latter, but the general rule is either to go with your regular guide, or use one of the "guides" next to the entrance of the Fajara Golf Clubhouse. I'm not sure how good they are, but the Owls are probably only possible early in the morning and in the evening. When working the golf course itself, access should be free, although someone might ask for money which it is not actually necessary to pay. The only tip is to keep off the browns (ie greens). The hotel end entrance for a walk is just beyond the car park used by the green taxis.
On our last morning we also walked along part of Atlantic Road, which is found by continuing past the Golf Course. Despite the noisy traffic going by, we had good views of Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Bearded Barbet, and Beautiful Sunbird.
Casino Cycle Track
On the opposite side of the road to Kotu Creek, a marsh is good for waders, African Jacana, and herons. The rice fields around these should be searched through as well, since Yellow-throated Longclaw and Cisticolas aren't always obvious at first, but they are present.
The cycle track follows the northern wall of the Badala Hotel, and continues for a few hundred metres to the rear of the Palma Rima Hotel. The small area of acacias and bushes parallel to the Badala are good for Grey-headed Sparrows, small finches and Little Bee-eaters, with Yellow-throated Longclaws possible. The rice fields next to this are open and reliable for Blue-bellied Rollers and Harrier Hawk. There is also a pool worth checking near the centre of the fields. Further along, various tracks cross a thick area of gingerbread plum. This is worth spending some time at, since the birds are not always immediately obvious, but include Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Bearded Barbet, Orange-cheeked Waxbill, and Yellow-crowned Gonolek. This is also one of the regular sites for Standard-wing and Long-tailed Nightjar. The best place to stand is near the centre of the diagonal track that starts at the Palma Rima. The birds start to fly up over the whole area just before dusk (our first was at 19:26), and the track itself is also worth checking since they regularly land out in the open.
Abuko Nature Reserve
Despite being one of the smallest reserves in Africa, it is worth spending a full day in Abuko - the opening hours are from 8am to 6pm. We found the best plan was to negotiate for the tourist taxi to drop us off and arrange a pick up time later (this cost 250 Dalasis) - the board prices are usually for the taxi to wait for a certain number of hours. Our taxi driver was very reliable on both visits to the reserve. Entry fee is 30 Dalasis each, and it is well worth paying an extra 50 Dalasis to book the photo hide at the Orphanage. It only comfortably seats 3, but has a constantly filled small pool which attracts a host of birds and animals, including Bluebill, Gonolek, Violet Turaco, Lavender Waxbill, Bushbuck, Red Colobus Monkey, Green Vervet Monkey, and Monitor Lizard. The area around the orphanage attracts many Bronze Mannikins, Firefinches, and Hooded Vultures, and we found the toilet area to be reliable for African Paradise Flycatcher. The extension was very disappointing, with very little to see on our visit.
The main part of the reserve is heavily wooded, with some semi-open parts. The best tactic is to walk slowly round stopping regularly for skulkers, and also to spend some time in the hides and exhibition centre terrace. Giant Kingfisher is regular at the first pool 1, with breeding Hammerkops and various herons & birds of prey around / over the crocodile pool. Within the woods, one of the most productive areas was between posts 24 and 29, where most of the bird parties seemed to pass at some time. However, patience here is needed, since it is more often quiet, but goodies included Green-backed Eremomela, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green Turaco, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Wattle-eye, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, and Black-necked Weaver. The regular Verreaux's Eagle Owl is just past the junction of paths at marker 95, but this is the one time when a guide might be useful at Abuko, since it does move around. The small bushes in this area are also worth checking for Scarlet-chested and Collared Sunbirds.
Tanji and Brufut woods
These two sites are quite close, and so worth doing back to back. Tanji reserve was quiet (we were there mid afternoon) apart from a couple of Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters & Stone Partridge, but the beach to the south and Brufut beach to the north are worth checking for Kelp and Slender-billed Gulls among the more common Grey-headed. Brufut woods were also fairly quiet, apart from a Klaas's Cuckoo and Pin-tailed Whydah.
The main reason for visiting this area seems to be the Black-crowned Cranes that were absent when we went, but the open woodland and especially large derelict fish ponds offer a lot. It was in the woods that we had our best views of African Oriole, as well as a variety of other passerines, and the fish ponds have a good chance of Plain-backed Pipit. To the rear of the ponds are some lagoons that hold the best numbers of terns (including marsh) and Pink-backed Pelicans.
Faraba Bush Track is only a short distance to the South of Pirang. It is a good area for raptors (particularly November to January), but we also had Striped Kingfisher, Yellow-fronted Canary, and plenty of Rufous-crowned Rollers.
Lamin is the other side if Serekunda to Kotu, and is a good area for Temminck's Courser. The melon fields are harvested towards the end of the year, leaving a quite large open area good for a few pairs of coursers. The small flocks of passerines should also be checked carefully - we had Cut-throat, Bush Petronia and Yellow-fronted Canary amongst them.
A number of Four-banded Sandgrouse come to drink regularly at these pools. They are easily seen, being only a couple of hundred metres to the south and on the opposite side to the airport entrance, on the Lamin to Brikrama road. The birds start to come in at dusk (around 19:25 in our case).
This is a recently discovered area, just under an hours drive inland from the Kotu area. It consists of a mixture of woodland, open scrub, and rice fields which include a marshy section. The main attraction when we were there was a good selection of raptors, most overhead, but also some hunting and perching low. There are also reports of less easily seen passerines, but our main tally included Glossy Starlings, African Oriole, and fleeting Violet Turaco
Barra and Essau
These areas are on the north side of the River Gambia, and well worth visiting for some species not normally seen on the south side. A guide is essential, both for finding the bird sites and getting there. Our guide sorted out the taxis at both sides, as well as shepherding us on the ferry, which is an experience in itself. Once off the ferry, the tidal peninsular to the north of Fort Bullen is a short walk, and has a variety of waders (including White-fronted and Kentish Plovers) and terns (Caspian, Royal & Lesser Crested) with the gulls. The area around Essau is very good for Northern Anteater-chat and Pygmy Sunbird, as well as Viellot's Barbet and Green-backed Eremomela. A variety of raptors also occurs here.