Mangrove Magic!

Mangroves are truly magical.  They are capable of storing up to five times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests.  Their roots dissipate energy from storm surges, shielding local communities.  They cleanse waters of their sediments and pollutants before they enter the sea.  They are invaluable to local economies and support one of the world´s most biodiverse ecosystems.  All great reasons why we’re working with The Gambia Birdwatchers Association to conjure up a little more magic…

In difficult times like these, do you find happy memories shine even brighter?  It seems like an age ago, but way back in December 2019, we shared a magical moment with a Giant Kingfisher!

Having sat motionless for an eternity on the wires above our head, it finally decides it’s time to do some Giant Kingfishing!  It hits the waters of Kotu Creek like an avian breezeblock, emerging with a squirming silver fish that glitters in the Gambian sun.

That day of our trip to The Gambia was special in other ways too – it was our first opportunity to see the exciting mangrove restoration project being carried out by our conservation partners, The Gambia Birdwatchers Association. We are so proud to be involved in funding this work, and are equally thrilled to be fully funding the next phase of the project – restoration of a further two hectares, as part of our #FlywayPromise commitment to truly sustainable ecotourism.

Our friends Karanta, Tijan and the rest of the GBWA team proudly show us an area where a team of volunteers have painstakingly planted thousands of mangrove propagules on three hectares of mudflat, at the heart of Kotu creek.

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New mangroves! © Inglorious Bustards

It’s not fully understood what caused the dramatic dieback incident of this coastal mangrove some years ago. Some point to the dropping of raw sewage into the waterway by local sewage works, and the dumping of detritus and pollution from the tourist industry.

However, one of the major factors is believed to be land erosion. With offshore reefs degraded and many coastal mangroves gone, there’s nothing to protect this area from coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels. This has led to the gradual deposition of sand in the area, blocking the regular tidal flow, sometimes for weeks.

Upriver, mangroves are also under threat from unsustainable forestry.  Soil from deforested river banks washes downstream and clogs the River Gambia’s arteries.  They are also particularly vulnerable to climate change.  As temperatures and rain patterns change, larger tide volumes and higher soil salinity have deteriorated swamps across The Gambia and neighbouring countries.

Ironically, the fix for many of the main issues that face mangroves is – more mangroves.

As a carbon-sequestering ecosystem they are quite simply astounding – they are capable of storing up to five times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests. Most of it is stored in the soil around their roots.

Mangroves protect against weather shocks and other climate-related adversities. Their roots dissipate energy from storm surges, shielding local communities – and themselves – against floods. They contribute to cooling micro-climatic conditions in areas of often high temperatures. Their vegetation retains sediments and filters run-off water, preventing soil erosion and siltation, and removing pollutants before they enter the sea.

Economically, they provide spawning areas and habitat for some 33 species of fish and shellfish, oysters, mud crabs and clams, around 90% of The Gambia’s fishery resources.  They promote food sources, fishery income and biodiversity.  Managed sustainably, they also provide wood for homes and small community practices, such as fish curing.

The magic of the mangrove lies in its leaf litter. It produces large quantities, and as these leaves sink, taking their carbon with them to Davy Jones´ Locker, they begin a detritus food web, which forms the sludgy base for one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The invertebrates that inhabit the sludge feed West African Fiddler Crabs, Atlantic Mudskippers, and a myriad of fish, which in turn nourish West Africa Nile Monitor Lizards, Nile Crocodile, African Manatee, Gambian Mongoose and African Otters.

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Little Bee-eater © Inglorious Bustards

Some of our favourite birds seen on our Gambia trip are strongly associated with mangrove habitats in one way or another, including stompers like African Finfoot, Blue Paradise Flycatcher, White-backed Night Heron, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Greater Painted-snipe, African Fish Eagle, Goliath Heron, all the Bee-eaters and half-a-dozen kingfisher species ranging from the very common Pied to the Giant Kingfisher, which is now perched back above us at Kotu Creek.

Standing on the mud, Karanta explains some of the work that has already gone into our project. First of all, the team mapped degraded areas suitable for regeneration, and designed the planting areas so as to fit the natural shape of the creek and the remaining mangrove. Propagules were then reaped from different species within the local mangrove itself, ensuring local genetic diversity was continued.

An army of volunteers then completed the entire planting phase in a single day!  It was surely back-breaking work, slurping through the mud in wellies in the stifling 30º heat and humidity of the wet season, but we genuinely wish we had been there!

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Volunteers get stuck in! © Inglorious Bustards

After planting it takes just 3-4 weeks to see positive results. A healthy 60% of the propagules survived, and by the time we visited in December the tiny mangroves-to-be were shrouded in a delightful green haze of fresh leaves. We can´t wait to see what they look like by this December, and also to see the next two hectares of the project coming to life!  As the mangrove returns, so will the invertebrates, molluscs, fish and the birds that rely on them. This and other projects like it will quietly stash away carbon and protect The Gambia’s fragile coasts.

But for the Kotu mangroves, arguably their most important role will be as a showcase for the nation’s biodiversity.  Tourism, including ecotourism, is hugely important to The Gambia, accounting for around 20% of GDP.  Its protected area network, as well as the country’s low intensity agriculture, forms a vital part of that income. But the tourist industry in this beleaguered nation is still trying hard to recover from a few bad years, as political unrest, Ebola and now travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have caused people to stay away in droves. If nobody is visiting, how long before natural habitats begin to come under pressure for short-term economic benefit in this, the 10th poorest country in the world?

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Giant Kingfisher © Inglorious Bustards

Over 350 species of bird have been recorded in this busy tourist hub, many of them colourful and engaging. From this easily-accessible little gem of a nature reserve, the GBWA can reach out to the thousands of birding and non-birding tourists that make the nearby hotels their base.  A magical moment with a Giant Kingfisher reinforces the value of ecotourism, and adds a voice for the continued protection of The Gambia’s exceptional mangroves, forests and sahel.

Want to see first hand how our mangroves are getting on?  Join us this November-December on our Bird Party in the Gambia Tour as we head back to Africa´s Smiling Coast!  The trip report from last year´s excellent trip is available for download here

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Inglorious Bustards with the wonderful Gambia Birdwatchers Association © Inglorious Bustards

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