Let me introduce The Gambia and its inhabitants

As we ready ourselves for the post-nuptial migration here in the Straits of Gibraltar, our thoughts turn to these great travellers’ wintering grounds where we will soon make our annual pilgrimage and follow in their footsteps.

The juxtaposition of Sahelian scrub habitat and The Gambia River gives a unique biosphere in this area of Africa.  Rather than being dominated by Sahel like that of its neighbouring Countries, it is a mixture of moist forest and Sahel and that is a great draw for migrants as well as stunning resident species.

Let us introduce you to some of the line-up!

The Residents 

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Egyptian Plover © Inglorious Bustards

The Egyptian Plover is the only member of the genus Pluvianus, also referred to (wrongly) as the Crocodile Bird due to its proposed symbiotic relationships with Crocodiles. According to the ancient Greek historian, orator and author Herodotus, the crocodiles lie on the shore with their mouths open and the bird flies into the crocodiles’ mouths so as to feed on decaying meat lodged between the crocodiles’ teeth! However no known modern day observations or photographic evidence of this behaviour exists! Although Herodotus did also comment on furry ants the size of foxes in the Persian Empire !

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Adamawa Turtle Dove © Inglorious Bustards

The Adamawa Turtle Dove has a disjunct population, very little seems to be known about this species, hardly anything exists on its feeding habits and it probably requires further census work to ascertain its preferred habitat and populations.

In case you were wondering……Adamawa was a subordinate kingdom of the Sultanate of Sokoto which also included much of northern Cameroon. The name “Adamawa” originates from the founder of the kingdom Modibo Adama.

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Pearl-spotted Owlet © Inglorious Bustards

If you can whistle like a Pearl-spotted Owlet you are likely to bring in a lot of interest from other forest avian dwellers who want to give you a hard time ! It is a fairly common inhabitant of The Gambia forests and forest edge and we often hear and see them at our sustainable locally-run accommodation. As they often hunt during the day – usually from a perch searching for small mammals, birds and insects – they tend to draw a crowd, as birds love to mob them!

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Green Turaco © Inglorious Bustards

The Turacos  are in the family Musophagidae literally meaning “banana-eaters” – which is fairly apt as they eat fruits, flowers and buds.  These birds can be at times hard to find amongst the treetops of the dense forests, but will often come to water, as we provided here.  Offering it a reliable drinking source and watching from a respectable distance ensured our group got some fabulous views.

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Standard-winged Nightjar © Inglorious Bustards

The adult male Standard-winged Nightjar pictured here (his standards are out of view) has a totally mental wing ornament during the breeding season which consists of a broad central flight feather on each wing elongated to 38 cm, much longer than the bird’s body.  20 cm or more of this is bare shaft then a feather at the end. In normal flight, these feathers trail behind, but in display flight they are raised vertically like….well…like standards…or flags!…A crazy example of sexual selection!

Interestingly there have been studies by Malte Andersson in 1982 of the elongate display feathers in male Widowbirds.  Tail feathers of some males were shortened by one-half, and some other males were ‘enhanced’ by gluing the distal half harvested from the first half. The study showed that birds with shortened tail feathers were less attractive than control (unaltered) males, while females preferred the ‘super’ males over the controls.

Clearly female Standard-winged Nightjars like those standards..!

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Chimpanzee © Inglorious Bustards

In early 1979 maltreated Chimpanzees from captivity were brought to the Gambia and introduced to the islands 300km upriver on the River Gambia.

Wild chimpanzees disappeared from The Gambia in the early 1900’s, but there are now more than 100 chimpanzees living free on three islands in four separate social groups.

Janis Carter who was instrumental in leading the project had to initially demonstrate which foods were safe, led foraging expeditions, and communicated through chimp vocalisations. Janis knew that if the chimps’ return to the wild was to be successful, she too would have to limit contact with humans. The chimps were let loose on the island. She slept in a cage.

Famously Janis accompanied a Chimpanzee named Lucy to The Gambia, Lucy was owned by the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Lucy was reared as if she were a human child, teaching her to eat with cutlery, dress herself, flip through magazines, and sit in a chair at the dinner table. She was taught sign language and for years she was unable to relate to the other Chimpanzees in the rehabilitation centre.  After her return to the wild Lucy showed many signs of depression, including refusal to eat, and expressed sadness and hurt via sign language.

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Abyssinian Roller © Inglorious Bustards

The Abyssinian Roller is likely to be encountered anywhere within the Sahelian habitats of The Gambia and perch prominently in trees or bushes making photographs like this possible. Rather surprisingly it is believed that the population trend for this species is on the up as it exploits urban areas and agriculture.

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White-backed Night Heron © Inglorious Bustards

The White-backed Night Heron is a secretive species often found in dense Mangrove and being strictly nocturnal it makes it all the more harder to find particularly as it is rarely found at feeding areas less than one hour after sunset and usually returning to day-roosts 15–30 minutes prior to dawn.

Very little is known of its eating habits although its likely to prey upon small fish, amphibians, molluscs, crustaceans and perhaps flying ants, flies and other insects.

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Malachite Kingfisher © Inglorious Bustards

The Malachite Kingfisher is commonly found in areas of freshwater including ditches, ponds and streams.  We quite frequently find them alongside rice paddies. There is an exceptional record of a nest site nest 4 m down a well shaft but they normally nest in a bank side within a dug tunnel 25–125 cm long excavated by both pairs. The nest-chamber is going to whiff a bit as it is often lined with fish bones and regurgitated arthropod exoskeletons!…..yum!

The People

The Gambia recently began the process of returning to its membership of the Commonwealth and formally presented its application to re-join to the Secretary-General on 22nd January 2018. The Gambia officially rejoined the Commonwealth on 8th February 2018.

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Watching the morning sunrise at the unexplored upper reaches of  The River Gambia © Inglorious Bustards

With a population of just over two million people The Gambia is Africa’s smallest nation. Around 75% of people live in the cities and towns and as you journey upriver leaving behind the beach tourists you realise just how poor The Gambia is, with a third of the population surviving below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 a day.

However inland the subsistence farming management gives rise to a huge array of wildlife not seen in neighbouring countries due to their intensity of agriculture. Long term fallows are the norm, long rotations with forested edges and even rotational scrub development which gives an amazing heterogeneity and a boom of habitats for both resident and migratory species alike. Here it is possible to find roosts of Turtle Doves several hundred strong as they are drawn to the array of seed available for them both from agricultural spillage and more natural sources. The River Gambia dominates and perhaps this availability of freshwater combined with food resources makes this area a magnet to wintering Turtle Doves.

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Our group talk with The Gambia Birdwatchers Association and Inglorious Bustards about conservation work and the importance of The Gambia for migrant birds © Inglorious Bustards

Having worked in The Gambia over a number of years on conservation projects and being the original members of #TeamPeanut we have forged great relationships and fully support and continue to work in partnership with the Gambia Bird Watchers Association. (GBA)

Inglorious Bustards work closely with GBA, giving project advice and consultation.  We are now donating 10% of our profits from all our Gambia trips to supporting their high quality, objective-led work.

These relationships enable us to give a unique visit to The Gambia and the least explored avian delights as well as ensuring that we leave behind us positive impacts for nature, the environment and its people.

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Wherever you are go you’re sure to get a smile in The Gambia © Inglorious Bustards

We still have availability on this years departure 2nd – 12th December and we hope to see you there!

More information here

Bird Party in The Gambia – A Rainbow of Birds!

What a show!!! Adamawa Turtle Dove, African Finfoot, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Common Wattle-eye, Oriole Warbler, Verreaux´s Eagle Owl, Long-crested Eagle Blue-breasted, Malachite, Pied and Grey-headed Kingfisher, Western Bluebill, African Pygmy Goose, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Senegal Parrots, Senegal Coucal, Palm Nut Vulture, Blue-bellied Roller,  Maribou Storks, Black-headed Herons, Black Egret, White-faced Whistling Duck, Northern Red Bishop, Violet Turaco, Grey Woodpecker, and Red-bellied and African Paradise Flycatchers – not to mention Green-back Vervets, Red Colobus Monkeys, Guinea Baboons, Nile Monitor Lizards and Nile Crocs – all adorned the final leg of our fabulous Gambian adventure, run in partnership with The Biggest Twitch. 

 

Rare, beautiful, and difficult to see – Adamawa Turtle Dove  © Inglorious Bustards

 

By now we were right up river, staying in a peaceful riverside lodge at Georgetown, which the group had to ourselves.  After breakfast we took a long walk – all the way across the guesthouse terrace to the quay, where our skipper Sado awaited to take us even further upstream.  This far inland, the river is freshwater – clean enough to drink if you´ve grown up in the area – and brings a hint of the moist African Forests to the Sahelian region. 

 

A lovely cruise upriver!

 

As we sailed upstream, Green-back Vervets and Red Colobus monkeys crashed through the luscious green vegetation lining the river, while Nile Monitor Lizards eyed us cautiously from the banks.  Palm Nut Vultures, Violet Turacos, Bearded Barbets, African Fish Eagles, Red-throated Bee-eater and African Harrier Hawks perched up in the palm trees and riverine scrub.

 

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Palm Nut Vulture  © Inglorious Bustards

 

We soon arrived on the shore where Kunkilling Forest Park is located.  Almost the second our feet touched solid ground we found our target species – the incredibly rare and difficult to see Adamawa Turtle Dove.  Darker-bodied, larger and more silvery-headed than our European Turtle Dove, it purrs with a deeper guttural edge!  It is non-migratory and restricted to a couple of locations in the moist forests of Africa, and this small island in the middle of the Gambia River, where it sat out proudly, as if it knew that it was a lifer for absolutely everyone in the group!

We spent a pleasant while wandering around the forest, encountering a troupe of Guinea Baboons and a wetland area full of Spur-winged Geese.

African Finfoot is high on any birder´s list of priorities when visiting these parts, but never easy to see. But as we drifted back, enjoying the lush greens in the mid-morning sun, we spotted not one but three, hanging out in a sandy cove at the water´s edge! We could see two adults and a young bird, but by the time the boat had swung back around there were two youngsters and one adult, meaning there must have been four in total! They were untroubled by our presence, and we got great views of them chilling in the shade and trying to move about without tripping over their own enormous orange feet.

Our Finfoot luck was most definitely in, seeing another two individuals on the journey back. That brought the total to six for the trip, a number almost unheard of for such a shy and special bird.

After lunch and a nice long siesta, we headed out to some local forest habitat, to enjoy the late afternoon roost.  Many European Turtle Doves were settling into the trees, as well as Rose-ringed Parakeets, Senegal Parrots, Senegal Coucals, and an Oriole Warbler. We had some of our best views yet of Blue-breasted Kingfisher and Blue-bellied Roller, as well African Jacana, and a great view of Grey-headed Kingfisher in the wetland areas.

 

Great views of a Blue-bellied Roller  © Inglorious Bustards

 

As the shadows lengthened, we had several sightings of Pearl-spotted Owlet flying in to roost, completed by a fantastic extended view as an individual tried to keep its cool while being harangued by Lesser Blue-eared and Long tailed Glossy Starlings and a particularly persistent Common Bulbul!

 

Pearl-spotted Owlet – check out those eyes, just wow!  © Inglorious Bustards

 

The afternoon was ending fast but as we left the best was yet to come – a huge Verreaux´s Eagle Owl crash-landed into a palm tree and surveyed us nonchalantly through its droopy pink-lidded eyes, followed shortly by another.  As dark fell and we made our way home, we had to pick our way through the Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjars warming themselves on the track!

We had some ground to cover the next day as we returned to the coast, but happily, the country´s relatively new tarmacked main road made our journey easy, and left us plenty of time to visit some great birding areas on the way back. Spotting as we went, we made a couple of stops to look at and photograph Long-crested Eagle and a colony of grotesque but appealing Maribou Storks. 

A troupe of sixty or more Guinea Baboons were picking through the chaff of a recent peanut harvest, so we stopped to watch their fascinating social interactions, and chat to some villagers who, though having no intention of harming them, were looking forward to the day when these raucous, intimidating apes finished scouring the field and left them in peace!

We took a rest at the lake at Dala Ba, or ´Big Water´, an important area for wintering European Turtle Doves, and found several hundred hanging out in the branches of trees around the lake, nipping down for the odd drink.  The lake and surroundings also yielded Black-headed, Grey and Purple Herons, Black Egret, Western Osprey, Malachite and Pied Kingfisher.

 

Dali Ba – the ´big water´

 

Arriving back at the hotel, there was plenty of time to freshen up before a couple of G&Ts and another delicious meal, topped off with a cake fashioned from ice-cream and fruit to celebrate Alan´s birthday!

The small bird observatory at Kartong was created by Brit Colin Cross, who has been in The Gambia for nearly a decade.  The understated concrete structure overlooks a bunch of reed-fringed freshwater and intertidal pools, which he and his local team manage and survey to provide consistently great habitat, and some very fascinating and complete ornithological records for the area.  On the pools were numerous White-faced Whistling Duck But perhaps most surprisingly we found two Common Coots, a Gambian lifer for our guide Tijan!

After some searching we also found three cute African Pygmy Geese and a Knobbed Duck amongst the White-faced Whistling Ducks! 

Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were now filling the air low above our heads, and as if that wasn´t a spell-binding enough sight to see, suddenly there were two Northern Carmine Bee-eaters amongst them!  These birds, normally only seen upriver or associated with bushfires, dazzled us with their stunning fuschia pink and turquoise get-up for a fabulous couple of minutes before vanishing off into the distance.

After a relaxed breakfast and chance to finalise packing for the homeward journey, we said goodbye to the lovely folk at Hisbiscus House and headed for the airport. Happily we had a whole morning to get in one last birding fix before our flight to Manchester, which we spent in Abuko Forest nature reserve, a tiny but teeming patch of primary forest in the heart of The Gambia’s coastal metropolis.

The lush vegetation offered welcome shade from the midday sun, and we enjoyed fantastic views of Violet Turaco, Grey Woodpecker, Western Bluebill and Red-bellied and African Paradise Flycatchers as well as a handsome Lizard Buzzard perched up over our heads. 

 

Violet Turaco  © Inglorious Bustards
Red Colobus Monkey – the old woman of the forest…  © Inglorious Bustards

 

A Nile Crocodile relaxed open-mouthed by the reserve´s central pool and we enjoyed being under the wistful gaze of Red Colobus monkeys, the so-called ´Old Women of the Forest´.

Common Wattle-eye – frequently heard on the trip but always hidden – finally decided to give us a look as several individuals showed well in the trees.  Fanti Saw-wing was yet another new bird for the list!

For our last lunch we went to the village of Lamin, overlooking the coastal mangroves, where we ate while Green-backed Vervet Monkeys looked hungrily at our plates!

Then, all too soon it was home time, and we said our goodbyes to Tijan and Abubaka before heading home to a dusting of British snow, taking plenty of birding memories and West African warmth home with us.

 

The team enjoying birding upriver

 

Want to follow the rainbow?! Join us in 2018! Download the full trip report here

and check out the 2018 info on our Tours page!