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A Tale of Two Go-rounds:Gambia January 2020

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Old Tuesday 24th March 2020, 20:01   #26
Farnboro John
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Thank you all! I should get back to this tomorrow afternoon, yesterday and today have been a bit busy one way or another.

The go-round stories are fascinating, do keep them coming!

Cheers

John
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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 11:34   #27
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Great report

Our worst go around was in Buenos Aires, we were taking off on flight to Ushuaia when the tyre burst and the wheel developed a problem and couldn't be moved up or down, we flew round for two hours burning fuel before we did an emergency landing. We were on local TV and on our phones we could see fire crews and ambulances all getting ready for us to land, on board lots of people were praying and crying as we entered the brace position before landing.
The pilot brought us down very smoothly on the remaining wheels and we actually took off again 3 hours later after some repairs, albeit with a half empty plane (they held our ship for an extra 5 hours at Ushuaia fortunately, so we boarded and went straight to bed, we awoke in the drake passage with Sarah being very ill as she forgot to take her travel sickness pills in all the excitement).
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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 13:08   #28
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Wonderful stuff John, just what we all need at the moment
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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 17:11   #29
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Thank you Richard!

Time for another instalment.

Day 3: 9 January

At least one bat was still singing when we got up but had stopped by the time we were outside and heading for breakfast. For some unaccountable reason I had a slightly thick head this morning but it didn't put me off my food: I probably did drink more tea than the previous day though.

Another tussle with the rush hour and we were once again on the road out of town past the airport. Unfortunately I still don't know where we made our first official stop, but almost as soon as we were out of the car we hit a mixed species feeding flock and for a few minutes it was absolute bedlam. Not only that but the light was as usual coming from an awkward direction so I moved away from the group to improve it and just shot photos of as much as possible as fast as possible while listening all the while for Ebrima calling species names so I could make sure of not missing any ticks.

A fly-by African Harrier-Hawk (for me you can take "Gymnogene" and stuff it) was immediately followed by a fly-through African Golden Oriole, perpetuating that species' habit of being unphotographable (by me, anyway). Then in quick succession a Northern Crombec bounced up into a dead tree, joined by a Little Weaver (tick) male Splendid Sunbird that actually sat in the right light for a picture, Beautiful Sunbird, Red-winged Warbler (tick), Black-crowned Tchagra, Yellow Penduline Tit (tick) and at least one Double-spurred Francolin (tick) that legged it off down the track nearby and vanished into the bushes. There were also Tawny-flanked Prinias and other common species such as Grey-backed Camaroptera, and a Senegal Eremomela that was another tick. As things calmed down we headed off down the track led by Ebrima who then found us a Singing Cisticola (tick). I've heard some very disparaging words about Cisticolas but personally I quite like them - the worst is still miles better than a Blyth's Reed Warbler.

Following the Cisticola as we proceeded on our first "short walk" of the day we turned off the track and then came upon a large flock of assorted Bishops that included both Northern Red Bishop (a tick, my only other one having been years ago at Stanpit while dipping a Little Crake) and Black-winged Red Bishop, as well as a number of Northern Grey-headed Sparrows (whoopee - no, only joking. They were a tick though.) A Glossy-backed Drongo (recent split and therefore a tick) sat above them watching for insects. The Bishops seemed settled but a Gabar Goshawk flashing into the middle of them fixed that! It also fixed one of the Bishops and took it up into a nearby tree to eat, which it proceeded to do without actually finishing it off first, so that for the first part of the meal it was still moving feebly. Slightly gruesome. Didn't stop us photographing this fine raptor, though.

The usual passing Hooded Vultures were now upstaged in quick succession by a Dark Chanting Goshawk, a Western Marsh Harrier (or as we say, Marsh Harrier) and a fine local Grey Kestrel that was a much appreciated tick. All of those were then upstaged by a brief sighting of some very, very, jittery Patas Monkeys at long range (I think only I raised a camera). We never got good views of these. It appears to me that they are very nervous of humans and I must unhappily conclude that at the very least they are driven off from crops and most likely, victims of real persecution.

What was turning into another long trek under the increasingly hot sun produced another flock of seed-eating birds, this time mostly composed of Red-cheeked Cordonbleus and Yellow-fronted Canaries, some of which sat up for photos. We also encountered a quite accommodating Black Scimitarbill that foraged in some very spiny acacias enabling photos before finally disappearing behind them. A Western Bonelli's Warbler was an interesting diversion in one of those acacias.

Back at the car after our short walk we headed off with the conversation centring around spotting stuff from the car, particularly raptors. Steve as the most travelled was relating previous experiences in which people achieved legend status by picking out a special bird at sixty mph, or disgraced themselves by misidentifying something seen all the time and causing an unnecessary stop. He then saw something he thought mattered and we quickly stopped and disembarked. Would his reputation survive?

The bird had sunk below the treeline but Ebrima decided it was worth a short walk and away we went. Luckily the bird came straight for us and we had an excellent close fly-by followed by circling a little further away, from a Beaudouin's Snake Eagle. Photos an' all: cracking views, cracking pix, cracking bird, cracking tick. Steve's rep intact! Interestingly, we had seen a snake eagle at the first site the previous day but put it down as Short-toed: when I revisited the photos after returning to the UK it was apparent that it, too, was a Beaudouin's - Short-toed off the trip list!

Walking on through the woodland we could hear European Bee-eaters above us. Ebrima's attention had sharpened as a guide's will when they are onto something, and he suddenly pointed upwards. "Yellow-bellied Hyliota" he announced. Big bird for Steve, not many ticks for him in Gambia but this was one of them (and obviously for the rest of us!) and now he had one of those desperate melt-down moments before getting onto the bird as it moved slowly through the upper branches. Luckily it paused for a bit of a preen and we all had good views as well as getting a few pictures.

Not long after that we reached the edge of the woodland and beyond it, in an isolated tree among hard-baked fields with intermittent bushes, sat a huge African Pied Hornbill, which was a tick for me and also sat tight to allow photos of its curious, casqued head-shape. Excellent!

Scouring the more open ground found us little apart from fairly distant views of the European Bee-eaters, but little else till we returned to the road and managed poor views of Northern Yellow White-eye (tick) in a fruiting tree next to where we had emerged, as well as a fly-over from a Palm-nut Vulture - another tick and my second-to-last African vulture sorted (Lammergeier still required), while we waited for Karanta to fetch the vehicle up to us. Our next destination would be another sit-down one and it was rumoured lunch would also be involved.

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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 17:24   #30
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Some pictures from the morning mayhem:

Singing Cisticola
Splendid Sunbird
Yellow Penduline Tit
Northern Crombec
Senegal Eremomela
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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 17:30   #31
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And some more as we proceeded with the short walk:

Red-winged Warbler
Black-crowned Tchagra
Glossy-backed Drongo
Tawny-flanked Prinia
Gabar Goshawk (with dead Bishop)
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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 17:38   #32
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Last from the first short walk:

Red Patas Monkey
Western Bonelli's Warbler
Yellow-fronted Canary
Black Scimitarbill
Grey Kestrel
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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 17:44   #33
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From the second short walk!

I didn't mention the pig in the main account: We saw two, with a single piglet, and according to Ebrima and Karanta they are domestic pigs. During the week we were in Gambia we saw a few pigs here and there, and it seems that the further inland you go, and the smaller settlements you are near, the more primitive the domestic pigs are. This one even has the remnant of a razor back!

Beaudouin's Snake Eagle
Yellow-bellied Hyliota
African Pied Hornbill
Yellow Pansy (butterfly)
Domestic Pig
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Old Wednesday 25th March 2020, 20:40   #34
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A couple of great days so far John. In my opinion it's always good to see a successful raptor hunt in action.
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Old Thursday 26th March 2020, 05:49   #35
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Sounds amazing John, frustratingly I've no idea what many of the species are like, but those Nightjars!
What a great birthday you had.
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Old Thursday 26th March 2020, 07:12   #36
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Originally Posted by foresttwitcher View Post
A couple of great days so far John. In my opinion it's always good to see a successful raptor hunt in action.
Same for me, but when a bird gets waxed from a flock in which you've just had a tick there's almost a sense of guilt.... my first Crag Martin (in Switzerland, 1985) lasted less than ten seconds before a Peregrine grabbed it.

Fortunately it turned out there was a colony only half a mile further on.

John
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Old Thursday 26th March 2020, 07:44   #37
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Originally Posted by Farnboro John View Post

Back at the car after our short walk we headed off with the conversation centring around spotting stuff from the car, particularly raptors. Steve as the most travelled was relating previous experiences in which people achieved legend status by picking out a special bird at sixty mph, or disgraced themselves by misidentifying something seen all the time and causing an unnecessary stop. He then saw something he thought mattered and we quickly stopped and disembarked. Would his reputation survive?

The bird had sunk below the treeline but Ebrima decided it was worth a short walk and away we went. Luckily the bird came straight for us and we had an excellent close fly-by followed by circling a little further away, from a Beaudouin's Snake Eagle. Photos an' all: cracking views, cracking pix, cracking bird, cracking tick. Steve's rep intact! Interestingly, we had seen a snake eagle at the first site the previous day but put it down as Short-toed: when I revisited the photos after returning to the UK it was apparent that it, too, was a Beaudouin's - Short-toed off the trip list!
I once called a stop for what turned out to be a perched up Grey-bellied Goshawk in Brazil, only the second that the guide had seen in the area. I was sitting slap bang in the middle of the minibus at the time, so wallowed in smugness for the rest of the day! (I can still summon up some residual smugness now, 15 years later, you can probably tell )

Bravo Steve for his Snake-Eagle, and thanks for the report John, just what we need right now!
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Old Thursday 26th March 2020, 07:59   #38
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Originally Posted by JWN Andrewes View Post
Bravo Steve for his Snake-Eagle, and thanks for the report John, just what we need right now!
An absolute pleasure, I assure you

There are lots more pix on my Flickr than there will be in this report but I suggest not looking till after the chronological report fills in all the anecdotes and so on.

Cheers

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Old Friday 27th March 2020, 16:52   #39
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The next stop turned out to be a set of small pools which had quite a few dragonflies about, giving Clare a chance to indulge her wider nature interests while Steve and I focused initially on a Blue-breasted Kingfisher (tick, and a stonking bird with a huge shovel of a bill and a lovely delicate shade of sky-blue on its breast) sitting above the edge of one pool in a shady spot in overhanging bushes, and then on an accommodating Broad-billed Roller that allowed a close approach and some manoeuvring to try to improve the harsh midday light that was whitening the sky and flattening the colours. Eventually Clare left the Odonata and also got shots of the roller, but Steve caught one outstanding moment as it ejected a huge pellet of insect body-parts. Another treat here was a Jacana on the far bank in the open.

From there we drove to Marakissa rivercamp and settled into conventional moulded plastic chairs to watch the local array of drinking bowls set among trees, bushes and smaller plants. In fact it seemed there might just be too much leafery for easy photography but a bit of observation while one of the staff refilled the bowls with a hosepipe (which when dragged around behind her moved unsettlingly like a long snake!) got us onto the best lines, and we could relax and wait for birds to come in.

Which they did, though some of them seemed all too skilful in the use of dead ground and cover. Purple Glossy Starlings (tick) in particular even when showing seemed to prefer to keep out of direct sunlight, a bit of a waste of their metallic plumage. Long-tailed Glossy Starlings were more forthcoming but so long that framing them and taking pictures without strong shadows dappling them was difficult! As for the flock of Orange-cheeked Waxbills, (tick) they were so easily spooked that I began to despair of ever recording their bold face patterns.

Fortunately a male Greater Honeyguide came in and sat for a portrait with no bother at all. A Yellow-throated Leaflove (I think another of Steve's six ticks from the trip, certainly one of mine) played hide-and-seek briefly but then showed itself properly, including face-on views of the yellow throat. Eventually we also sussed the ideal spot to lurk for the Orange-cheeked Waxbills and managed to get shots that reflected their abundance and proximity rather than their behaviour. Red-eyed Doves and Piapiacs also put on a fine show for us: but all the birds were abandoned when someone announced to us that a West African Crocodile was sitting out on the bank of the creek a few metres walk away.

We scampered down to a concrete jetty and looked at the croc basking thirty yards or so away. It wasn't enormous like Nile Crocodiles can be but it was big enough that I was surprised to see someone working up to their waist in the creek, building a new footbridge across it. The books say West African Crocodile is less aggressive than its congener, but by thunder I wouldn't want to test it as thoroughly as that bloke was doing.

The croc's repertoire for photographers consisted of mouth open/mouth closed. We still took quite a few photos and were glad to have done so as we didn't see another for the rest of the trip! Nile Crocs are dark and patterned but this one seemed to be a light olive-green and more or less uniform in colour: quite elegant in appearance. Along with a Great White Egret and Grey Heron there was an African Darter sunbathing on a log in the creek between us and the croc, which was a bonus.

After lunch we went a few yards down the road to try for Black-crowned Crane, but I think Ebrima discovered someone had been cutting down a tree and flushed it, so that was that. We did see a Black Heron on a pool, though it didn't give us a display of the umbrella trick and it was quite distant. A good bird and a tick, but a little anti-climactic. There was also a flock of White-faced Whistling Ducks that flew around a lot and gave us good views.

All in all Marakissa was pretty good to us and an enjoyable stop. I have a feeling that we just went back to the hotel after that, it must have been mid-afternoon by then, but my mind's a blank at the moment.

John
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Old Friday 27th March 2020, 17:11   #40
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Roadside pools and start of Marakissa rivercamp:

Blue-breasted Kingfisher
Broad-billed Roller
Greater Honeyguide (male)
Red-eyed Dove
Gambian Sun Squirrel
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Last edited by Farnboro John : Friday 27th March 2020 at 17:14.
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Old Friday 27th March 2020, 17:18   #41
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More from Marakissa:

Piapiac
Purple Glossy Starling
Long-tailed Glossy Starling
Orange-cheeked Waxbill
West African Crocodile
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Old Friday 27th March 2020, 17:27   #42
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Final shot from Marakissa and a look at pictures jogged my memory - we got back early enough that while the girls decided to pamper themselves, Steve and I trotted off for a look at Kotu Creek and a walk along the nature trail we had followed with Ebrima on the first afternoon. The first thing we found was another Blue-breasted Kingfisher! Then we had a stunning encounter with a Little Bee-eater and some waders in the creek including a confiding Black-winged Stilt and a Whimbrel. Nothing new, just some cracking birding.

Long-tailed Glossy Starling under full sunshine
Blue-breasted Kingfisher
Little Bee-eater
Caspian Tern
Black-winged Stilt
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Old Friday 27th March 2020, 18:00   #43
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Nice report and excellent photos John, particularly well received in the current circumstances. I've been interested in The Gambia for a couple of years, but have yet to make there - your report and photos have made it a more tempting (relatively short-haul) option for the future!
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Old Friday 27th March 2020, 19:35   #44
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Cracking birds, fantastic photos, and that Purple Glossy Starling is unbelievable, like something out of a cartoon ora a fairytale! Well done.
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Old Monday 30th March 2020, 12:52   #45
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Thanks all again. A quick note before we set off again: on our first day out (8 January) the first stop was a Mandinaba (Mandina Ba on some maps). On the following day (9 January) our first stop was Mandour.

Day 4: 10 January

A couple of small extra bags to fit into the bus today as we were off on a two-day excursion inland. To simplify booking and not have to take the big cases we just doubled on accommodation and left stuff in our rooms at the Bakotu. So off past the airport again and away along the South Bank Road heading for Soma. On the way we had a couple of planned stops but first we pulled off the side of the road for one of those heroic spots while driving for which I gather Ebrima is legendary. Sitting quietly in a roadside tree and not at all obvious even looking while stationary and out of the car was an African Cuckoo which remained where it was while we shuffled about in the dust trying to get a clear line to it through an abundance of twigs. Then off again, not very far, to pull off once more next to another car from which we could see a birder and guide emerging.

"I don't believe this," Steve muttered and hopped out quickly to make for the other vehicle. The lady birder who was sorting her bins and camera out had been on a recent trip to Chile with Steve, and a "Dr Livingstone I presume" moment took place. Extraordinary.

Anyway, we were all here for the same thing, so we all crossed the road and followed a narrow track around the end of a high wall to access some sort of parkland environment with a number of well spread out large trees and only a few scattered bushes, with the dry season remnants of grass and other low vegetation. Three Senegal Parrots went past us at high speed but then Ebrima spotted our real quarry, a pair of Brown-necked Parrots (tick) high in one of the major trees. Quickly grabbing a couple of snaps from our initial stance we gradually closed on the parrots, which took no notice of us. Soon were getting great views of them and gradually it became apparent there were more in the area - in total I think we saw nine. We watched them for a good half-hour, with feeding, interaction such as allopreening, some robust play and birds flying around all being shown off. A Ring-necked Parakeet also shot past, giving us all three Gambian parrots in one go. Cool.

We continued a walk round the area and Ebrima found us African and Bruce's Green Pigeons (tick), both species being pretty wary and difficult to either get close to or get views in the open as they fed or roosted within denser parts of the tree leafage. A huge group of African Palm Swifts hunted insects low overhead and these were actually more accommodating for pictures! A Marsh Harrier drifted through, and we got decent views of Green Woodhoopoe as well as a showy Grey Woodpecker (the Fine-spotted Woodpecker in the same place wasn't at all helpful, unfortunately!)

A perched up Violet Dropwing was the last highlight of this stop and off we went again, only to stop at some fields where a Brown Snake Eagle was perched in a treetop surveying the area. As we made our way towards it some Patas Monkeys bolted into the bushes at the edge of the cultivated area and we never even got our bins on them. They were quickly forgotten as we had a close flyby from a Grasshopper Buzzard: cracking views and a good photo-opp from this good tick, then also got eyes onto a flock of White-billed Buffalo-weavers (tick). A more distant perched Long-crested Eagle unfortunately didn't hang about, launching and disappearing low behind trees: but the original target sat tight while we ambled up to it and took pictures of it atop its hunting perch. In fact it pretty much ignored us, concentrating most of its effort gazing in the other direction, and when it finally shot off the tree and dived we could be sure it hadn't been flushed but had spotted a potential meal.

Back in the car we moved on to another planned stop where it seemed to us the short walk didn't yield what Ebrima hoped it might: but we did nail a Lizard Buzzard (tick) in a tree and get good pictures of a Blue-bellied Roller on a fence as well as photos of a Black-headed Heron hunting the edge of a pool.

After that it was pretty much grinding out the miles, with the only excitement being a moment when we squeaked past a bush fire that was raging towards the road propelled by the strong wind: we could feel the blast of heat from it as we passed. A village yielded up a Western Banded Snake Eagle that was also nice to see but didn't really offer much given harsh light and white sky at midday.

Going to break for lunch, back in a bit.

Cheers

John
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Old Monday 30th March 2020, 14:30   #46
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Parrot stop:

Brown-necked Parrot
African Palm Swift
African Grey Woodpecker
Green Woodhoopoe
Violet Dropwing
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Old Monday 30th March 2020, 14:34   #47
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Mostly raptors:

Grasshopper Buzzard X 2
Brown Snake Eagle
Blue-bellied Roller
Lizard Buzzard
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Old Wednesday 1st April 2020, 13:22   #48
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That parrot shot is an absolute corker John!
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Old Wednesday 1st April 2020, 14:10   #49
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That parrot shot is an absolute corker John!
Cheers Mike! It was a great session with some very engaging birds.

I'll probably get the next instalment out later today.

John
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Old Wednesday 1st April 2020, 17:45   #50
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Just before we reached Soma we encountered a big wetland area that still enjoyed expanses of actual water 9though clearly the ponds and lakes had shrunk with the effects of the dry season. And upon it, hurrah! Pink-backed Pelicans, another of those species that I'd been told I'd get on several previous trips but which had never materialised in front of me. Plenty of them here. To be honest even as pelicans go they are unimpressive: dwarfed by Great White Pelicans (several of which were looming over them here), and as with many very large birds, always a bit ragged with moult, in plumage that anyway is rather dingy. But they're a bird I've been waiting on a long time, so if joy wasn't quite unconfined, certainly there was more excitement than for your typical LBJ tick. Assorted herons including quite a few dark Western Reef Herons were also present and a couple of European Spoonbills pretending to be African for the winter. I had a good scan around the wide margins of the lakes hoping for the odd mammal, but nothing could be seen and soon we were off again.

At Soma we turned off the South Bank Road and onto the Trans-Gambian Highway and headed North. A couple of times we ran out of tarmac and the red laterite track was suddenly hard on the rear end... We cross the Gambia River on the new bridge, paid the toll and at the next big junction headed back West towards Morgan Kunda, where we were to spend the night. This is a relatively new camp but well laid out with small chalets each with a veranda, set around the rectangular perimeter of a compound on the edge of a village. The dining hall - thatched and open-sided - is set centrally, separated for the chalets by flower beds with flowering trees of various sorts - all of which attract birds. Water bowls are set near the dining hall so bins and cameras at table are a must.

We quickly sorted out who was in which chalet (embarrassingly, for a minute the locals seemed to think it was Clare, not Maz, who was with me.... where's my flak jacket?!) and regrouped for a late lunch before an evening drive. Red-billed Queleas, White-billed Buffalo Weavers and African Silverbills (tick) competed point-blank for our attention as we refuelled. Carelessly letting my camera out of arms reach (breaking Rule One) I missed what turned out to be the best photo-opp of the holiday with a male Pygmy Sunbird. What made it worse at the time was that I thought it was a tick: but after getting home I discovered I'd seen it in Kenya years ago. Missing the photo still rankled.

Anyway, back in the bus and away through the village, lurching on uneven dirt tracks until we got into more open country between fields, where the wide tracks got less traffic and consequently were much smoother. Before long it was time for a short walk, we debussed and I immediately spotted a couple of Black-headed Lapwings in the nearest field - tick! The Lapwing tribe are mostly quite spectacular waders and these were no exceptions, with black caps ornamentally feathered like Robin Hood's hat, with a staring mad pale eye in the strongly patterned face. They mated for our delectation and we then shuffled past them through the dusty field and onwards to the next large dust rectangle, which had five Temminck's Coursers in the far corner. I'd seen these before but they are attractive birds and I couldn't remember getting pictures so I accompanied Steve sidling up the edge of the unhedged field along a line of knee-high weeds, trying to look unobtrusive and completely uninterested in Temminck's Coursers.

The birds were alert, standing excessively upright like parading soldiers determined to stick chests out further, shoulders further back and waists drawn further in than any of their comrades. In between such stiffness they scurried short distances, dipped to the ground to take insects invisible to us and then came back to attention. We did better than I thought we might and got some fairly distant but sharp pictures before the first one took flight and we called it a day to return to the rest of our party.

Striding out along the back edge of the field we investigated an area of scrub before we rejoined the vehicle. We got among a feeding flock and quickly added Northern Anteater Chat (tick), Northern Wheatear, a Rufous Bushchat of the local sedentary race, Bush Petronia, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weavers (tick) and a showy White-fronted Black Chat to our list.

Dinner's nearly ready: I've a bit more of the day to recount but it will have to wait a bit.

Cheers

John
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