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 – Tendaba Triumphs

Our journey upriver to Tendaba brought some of the best birdwatching our well-travelled team had experienced! 

Egyptian Plover, Marshall Eagle and Long-crested Eagle, Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, Red-throated, Little Green, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters led the way, with African Golden Oriole, Dark Chanting Goshawk and Grasshopper Buzzard, Beaudouin´s, Brown and Short-toed Snake Eagle, African Fish Eagle, African Blue Flycatcher, Kittlitz Plover, Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark, Cut-throat Finch, Yellow White-eye, Ant-eater Chat, Pied and Blue-breasted Kingfishers making sure the group´s waking hours were filled with avian delights!

 

Egyptian Plover!  Superb!!!  © Inglorious Bustards

We set off in the freshness of the African morning to Tendaba ´airport´ – a hand-painted sign directed us to ´Terminal 1´, which is actually a raised mudbank in the heart of a wetland! From this unbuilt, unspoilt area, we watched birds of open woodland such as Black Scimitar-bills, Purple Glossy Starlings, Village Indigo Birds and African Grey Hornbills moving through the trees, while Grasshopper Buzzards and a young African Fish Eagle got ready to leave their roosts. 

 

Moving on to an area of low-intensity peanut farming mid-morning, we soon added African Golden Oriole to the list.  We had fantastic views of Grasshopper Buzzards perched up close in the trees and our first look at a sexy Beaudouin´s Snake Eagle.  A prolonged flyby by a low Bateleur left us breathless and with some great photos!

 

This massive Bateleur took our breath away!  © Inglorious Bustards
Stunning Grasshopper Buzzard  © Inglorious Bustards

 

After a bit of relaxing downtime by the side of the broad and tranquil Senegambia River, we took an afternoon boat trip into the extensive mangrove swamps of Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve. From the small fishing boat we had intimate views of the snake-y antics of African Darter and the understated but noisy Mouse Brown Sunbird.  We also heard African Blue Flycatcher.  Long-tailed Cormorants, Striated and Squacco Herons were numerous as we pootled past muddy coves between the mangrove roots, and Pied and Blue-breasted Kingfishers were with us at every turn.

Larking about on the Gambia River

 

As the afternoon wore on, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters came into roost, decorating the bare branches of trees, and many Collared Pratincoles and Gull-billed Terns drifted overhead.  We enjoyed the spectacle of a whirling mass of Sand Martins, numbering many hundreds, gathering insects over an area of misty, damp pasture.

The Sahel in the early morning has its own special light and its own amazing selection of roosting raptors – as we set off on our day´s birding, beautiful Dark Chanting Goshawks and Grasshopper Buzzards were today upstaged by Long-crested and Brown Snake Eagle and two mega Marshall Eagles, perched up next to the road for all to see.

 

Soon the passerines were active too, and we had some fantastically productive stops watching the airborne ridiculousness that is the Exclamatory Paradise Whydah.  These black, red and yellow avian shooting stars resemble airborne punctuation marks as they flit from tree to tree, encumbered by their massive tail feathers.  Yellow White-eye, Red-billed Quelea, Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark and a host of Long-tailed and Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starlings were also seen.

 

Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling – what a stunner!  © Inglorious Bustards

 

Soon we reached Farafennye, where we would cross the Senegambia river to explore the northern shore.  Tijan expertly guided us to the front of the queue for the small car ferry, and after half an hour or so of enjoying the exciting atmosphere of the port, as well as its Hammerkops and Egrets, we were aboard and over the river in no time.

Soon we reached Kaur wetlands, where the day’s birding immediately went stratospheric! The very first bird we found was a lone Egyptian Plover, an excellent bird in anybody´s book, but also Alan´s most wanted bird of the trip!  This incredibly smart black, white and ginger wader allowed us to within feet of where it sat, particularly Iain and Sarah-Jane who shuffled towards it on their knees in veneration, presumably earning the privilege of some absolutely phenomenal photos of this sought-after bird.

 

That gorgeous Egyptian Plover again!  © Inglorious Bustards

 

We were so struck by its awesomeness that we barely paid heed to the host of amazing wetland birds in the background – while we ate our picnic lunch we were entertained by a strong supporting cast of Wattled and Spur-winged Plovers, Kittlitz Plovers, Purple Swamphens and Senegal Thick-knees. There were many wintering migrants in the area, including Yellow Wagtails, Reed Warblers, Common Chiffchaffs, and a Subalpine Warbler. Montagu´s and Marsh Harriers quartered the marshes and a Brown Snake Eagle sat up in a Baobab tree devouring a snake.

Next up after a restful few kilometres we arrived at a quarry, where our senses received a further avian pummelling!  This sandy expanse is home to a huge breeding colony of Red-throated Bee-eaters, which filled the air with their lively calls. They adorned literally every tree with their vivid colours, making them look like they´d been decorated for Christmas! Among them were Little Green Bee-eaters, Cut-throat Finches, Ant-eater Chats, and a large roost of Long-tailed Glossy Starlings and Yellow-billed Shrikes.  A lone White-backed Vulture silently oversaw the colourful party below like a bouncer.

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Red-throated and Little Green Bee-eaters decorating the trees  © Inglorious Bustards

 

We had one last ferry crossing to do, this time at the sleepy end of the river, where the queue of vehicles numbered one! As we cruised across the river in the gentle evening light, our accommodation was already in sight, and we were soon enjoying a beer overlooking the peaceful Senegambia River, as the local kids splashed about at the quayside and flocks of Egrets travelled downstream to roost.

Upriver loveliness

 

This was a truly incredible day´s birding and not one that the group will forget in a hurry!

Fancy a piece of the Egyptian Plover action?  Download the full trip report here

and check out the 2018 info on our tours page!

 

Bird Party in the Gambia – Smiles Galore at the Coast!

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. 

The team!

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.

A handsome Hooded Vulture!  © Inglorious Bustards
Pied Crow in Banjul  © Inglorious Bustards

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.

Birding at the Hotel!

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.

Here´s looking at you!  Northern White-faced Owl  © Inglorious Bustards

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!

 

All smiles after a delicious lunch with Tijan´s family

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.

A stunning Grey-headed Gull  © Inglorious Bustards

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.

Scenes from bustling Tanji fish market

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.

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A decidedly grumpy but very impressive Greyish Eagle Owl!  © Inglorious Bustards
Sleepy Standard-winged Nightjar  © Inglorious Bustards

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.

Malachite Kingfisher

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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Pied Kingfisher  © Inglorious Bustards

Sound like this experience would bring a smile to your face?  Download the full trip report here.

and check out the 2018 info on our Tours page!