Not much bigger than Norfolk, The Gambia is Africa’s smallest country and clings to the banks of the Gambia river. The curve of this river as it winds into the continent shapes the whole country into a geographical grin, earning it the nickname of Africa’s Smiling Coast.
There was certainly no shortage of smiles within our team either, as the very first days at the coast brought us avian delights like Bearded Barbet, Western Bluebill, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjar, Yellow-capped Gonalek, Lesser Blue-eared and Long-tailed Glossy Starling, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Northern White-faced and Greyish Eagle Owl, Beautiful Sunbird, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Red-bellied Flycatcher, Black Scimitarbill, African Hawk Eagle, Red-winged Warbler, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher, Grasshopper Buzzard, Lizard Buzzard, Dark Chanting Goshawk and Bateleur to name but a few!
As the tarmac roads gave way to red dirt streets lined with fruit and clothes stalls, mechanic´s shops and hairdressers, bicycles, dogs and playing kids, the group could sense our Gambian adventure had already begun! Hooded Vultures, Pied Crows and Yellow-billed Kites patrolled the skies above us, with needle-thin African Palm Swifts and Little Swifts filling the gaps in between.
We were soon at Hibiscus House hotel – a quirky, refreshing haven of a place, with luxurious rooms nestling around a courtyard draped with greenery, with intimate gathering areas and an appealing pool at its heart. After settling in with a welcome drink or two it was time for our first dinner, choosing from a delicious menu of European and West African traditional dishes, which we enjoyed as enormous fruit bats swooped down, splashing as they drank from the swimming pool.
Dotted around the courtyard at Hibiscus House are numerous bird baths, so the next day the group got in an early start, birding the hotel before breakfast! Little Weavers, Red-billed Firefinches, Common Bulbuls, Bronze Mannakins and Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus were all bathing and drinking just metres away. Yellow-capped Gonalek made an appearance, and it soon became apparent that a pair of Senegal Coucals were nesting within the grounds!
After a tasty breakfast of fresh fruits, breads and omelettes, we headed out – just down the road to Brufut Forest, a fantastic area of Sahelian woodland.
In a clearing just beyond the village, we got our first views of some engaging local birds, including Red-billed Hornbill, Lesser Blue-eared and Long-tailed Glossy Starling, African Mourning Dove and a cute spearmint green Klaas’s Cuckoo.
Moving further into the forest, local bird guru Tijan´s local knowledge and skill came into play and he found two roosting Northern White-faced Owls, wicked little owls which stared down at us from their roosts as we got some great photos.
As the heat of the day started to pick up we headed to Tijan´s home – affectionately dubbed ´RSPB Brufut office´ – where he had kindly invited us for lunch. Here we sat drinking a refreshing coffee in the shady courtyard while his wife Mariama prepared us a delicious Yassa, a type of local curry.
Tijan has many bird feeders and drinking areas in his garden, and we were delighted to get fantastic up-close views of Village and Black-throated Weavers, African Thrush, Lavender Waxbill, Beautiful Sunbird and Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus flitting through the trees as delicious aromas wafted out of the kitchen.
We ate African style, sharing out the peanut-y Yassa, fresh salad, bread and fried potatoes while Tijan´s 3-year old son Lamin impressed us with his binocular skills!
After lunch we headed out once more to Tanji area, where the thriving fish market brings together colourful boats, fish-buyers and fishermen haggling over fresh catches while gulls and terns do the same over the discarded bits.
We got right in amongst all the action and had fantastic close-up views of Slender-billed and Grey-headed Gulls on the beach scrapping over scraps, while Royal, Lesser Crested, Caspian and Sandwich Terns were all fishing just offshore. Waders working the beach detritus included Ruddy Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Spur-winged Plover and Sanderling, and three wintering Western Ospreys were seen fishing and perching in nearby Baobab trees.
Continuing the relaxed birding theme of the day, we retired to the bar-café area of Tanji Eco Lodge, where, again, we had great views of feeders and water bird baths from our beverage-drinking area! We sat back and watched the West African avian fashion parade, where Western Bluebill, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Little Greenbul, Yellow-throated Leaflove and Paradise Red-bellied Flycatchers showed off their plumage for all to see and giving the photographers in the group good reason to drool!
The next day’s journey upriver was at a relaxed pace, enjoying spending the whole day on the two-hour journey, making the most of great birding opportunities along the way.
Breakfast was a caffeine and condensed milk-fuelled Gambian special, taken at a roadside stall by the market at Brikama, where we supplemented our fine hotel takeaway breakfast with a nice strong coffee!
Next we made a stop at Farasuto Forest reserve, where local people are being trained to be wardens to help preserve the local wildlife. We walked through the rich Sahelian scrub getting great views of many resident species including Bronze Mannakins and Black Scimitarbills.
Arriving at a specially marked site, we were able to pass one at a time and in complete silence to a small viewing area. From here we found ourselves within metres of roosting Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjar, which remained undisturbed as we admired their intricate camouflage patterning. Roosting nocturnal birds were numerous here, and we also found a Greyish Eagle Owl and a nesting Northern White-faced Owl.
In another area of the park we were treated to two exuberant Bearded Barbets, which showed well from the top of a dead tree while Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters swooped round them.
We made good progress upriver, and stopped for lunch at Kanpant rice fields. Tijan and his son Abubaka, who is following in his father´s footsteps as a bird guide, whipped up a lovely bunch of sandwiches on fresh local bread. Appetites sated, we were birding again in no time. We took a wander through the rice paddies, finding African Harrier Hawk, African Hawk Eagle, Red-winged Warbler, Bronze Mannakin, Western Grey Plantain Eater, African Jacana, Hammerkop, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Malachite Kingfisher amongst others.
Driving on we made a couple more stops to appreciate the new raptors that were passing us by, including Grasshopper Buzzard, Lizard Buzzard and the stunning Dark Chanting Goshawk. And a lone Bateleur, soaring tail-less on V-shaped wings caused us to screech to a halt and watch it until it vanished into a speck.
Soon we arrived at Tendaba Lodge, our home for the next two nights. Set on the quiet shores of the Senegambia River, this homely lodge offers a welcoming, clean, friendly place to stay in the heart of rural Africa. We had time to relax before dinner, and enjoyed a couple of Gambian beers while gazing out over the serene waters and enjoying views of Spur-winged Goose, Pink-backed Pelican, Caspian Tern and Pied Kingfisher from the riverside terrace. What a start to our trip!
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