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A Tale of Two Go-rounds:Gambia January 2020

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Old Friday 20th March 2020, 16:15   #1
Farnboro John
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A Tale of Two Go-rounds:Gambia January 2020

By comparison with some BFers I am not a great traveller, but I do enjoy looking round other countries and continents, and of those latter I've been to so far Africa gets my vote. Much of it, though hot, is not sultry (which I don't like) and it has a splendid array of birds. So when a proposal was floated to tempt my friend Clare into proper foreign travel instead of just messing about in Europe and the Med, I was happy to go along with it: and Gambia seemed tailor-made, not too far, no jet-lag worries, good hotels and guides.

Cast:

Me
Marion
Steve Davis
Clare Dell

(This is a not unusual twitch crew in UK, so we all had a fair idea we could put up with each other for a week.)

Ebrima Sidibeh (guide)
Karanta (driver and secondary guide)

Via The Gambia Experience we booked a half-board week at the Bakotu Hotel, which backs onto the Kotu Creek which is a cracking birding habitat in its own right.

Within that week we had an overnight trip up-river by car, crossing to the North Bank via the new bridge for a look round some areas of special interest.

I haven't yet had Steve's list of sites, so I'm going to start without it and hope he comes through before I've had to say I don't know where we were too many times....

I'll try to remember to embolden first mention of trip birds throughout. At the end I should be able to attach an Excel trip list.

Day One 7 January 2020

A pre-booked taxi picked all four of us up for a whiz round the M25 to the M23 and Gatwick. After the usual nerves going through bag drop, security etc we had time for a decent breakfast and the traditional per-flight G&T before heading off to board our Titan Air A320 for a six-hour flight to Banjul.

Its not easy to enjoy a six-hour flight but good weather and a window seat gave me the chance to see very little snow on the Spanish mountains and a constant brisk wind blowing Sahara sand into the air and coastwards all the way down the West of Africa. In between times I read the field guide and wondered what sort of inroads we would be able to make into it.

When we reached Banjul it was pretty hazy but obviously also a pretty hot afternoon. We turned over the sea to begin an approach across the city to the international airport, and I began scanning the airspace and ground to try to get Bird No. 1 for the trip list.

A couple of kites (presumed Yellow-billed but not positively ID'd) whipped past the wingtip, and I was just beginning to idly wonder just how many raptors might be aloft over the city just now, when the pilot stuffed everything into a corner: throttles up, stick back, double clunk as the undercarriage locked back up - screaming from (some of) the ladies and a whole flock of Hooded Vultures shot past us really rather close. Probably on both sides, but I couldn't see to starboard....

Back up and around we went, with Captain Speaking coming on to explain he'd felt the need to abandon the approach, no need to worry, quite normal...

My first ever airline go-round: how many, in how many trips, have you had? I've flown enough to consider that whatever it is, normal it ain't!

Anyway, it crossed my mind that airline procedures involve essentially doing the same thing, the same way, time after time - so our next approach would involve putting the aircraft through the exact airspace that had previously been full of vultures and hoping that this time it wasn't. What was that definition of madness again?

We landed without further incident. Bird #1: Hooded Vulture. As we taxied in there were definite Yellow-billed Kites hunting the airport outfield.

The terminal had Speckled Pigeons sitting on it, along with the inevitable Feral Pigeons. NOT Rock Doves: assorted plumages of nasty placcies. There was a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, too. We got through immigration and found our transfer coach to the hotel, unfortunately the baggage handlers had been onto our bags like lightning and we ended up paying them off while resolving not to get caught that way again (and we didn't.)

The Gambia Experience chap had a nice little spiel but we had our own guide booked and a busy birding itinerary so we paid very little attention, gazing out of the coach window to find birds instead.

Laughing Dove, Abyssinian Roller (tick), Blue-bellied Roller (tick), Cattle Egret and Grey Heron had all joined the list by the time we reached the hotel, plus a Nile Monitor swimming in Kotu Creek as we passed over the bridge, initially misidentified as an otter. Oops.

Around Reception an African Mourning Dove was sat in a tree and Common Bulbuls were scrounging. Having found our rooms and frankly, dumped the gear, we set off back to the Kotu Bridge to meet Ebrima and to do some proper birding. We fended off a few offers of guiding with Ebrima's name, which we found to be universally effective all week.

Around the bridge we quickly added Beautiful Sunbird (tick), Wattled Lapwing, African Palm Swift, Western Plantain Eater (tick), Senegal Coucal (tick) and Red-eyed Dove to the list, as well as encountering Ebrima by the Gambian Bird Guide Association office. A bit of hand-shaking and smiles all round, and he suggested a walk along a nearby nature trail.

We assented, but first we had to get our fill of the contents of the creek from the bridge. This included such goodies as Senegal Thick-knee and Vinaceous Dove (both ticks) as well as familiar birds like Spur-winged Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, a Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Greenshank, a huge adult Caspian Tern fishing in the channel, and a Reed Cormorant overhead.

Cameras were clicking nicely! This was my first trip with 100-400 Mk II as main lens rather than my 500 f4 and I have to say I only rarely missed the extra reach while shooting from the shoulder rather than a tripod unquestionably got me a lot of shots from brief opportunities.

More in a bit (and some photos). Maz says I've been on the computer too long.

John
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Old Friday 20th March 2020, 17:07   #2
peter.jones
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The way things have gone, you might have the Africa yearlist record for 2020
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Old Friday 20th March 2020, 19:22   #3
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I've been on a "go around" once due to fog. Not horrifying, but yours sounds more sudden.

I've also been a participant on a plane where the pilot decided to teach his co-pilot "touch-and-gos." It was a little 4-seater plane from a camp in the Okavango Delta to Maun, Botswana with only two passengers aboard. He warned us he was going to do it, so it wasn't a shock. However, when they completed the maneuver, I heard the pilot ask the co-pilot, "Now did you feel that shear?" Wow.

When we landed in Maun, I went up to him and said "So you were practicing touch-and-gos in wind shear?"
His response "Oh, you heard that, huh?" He got the message that I didn't approve.

Fortunately I didn't have to fly with them again.
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Old Friday 20th March 2020, 20:23   #4
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Once we had our fill of Kotu Creek birds, (having added a pair of Giant Kingfishers on wires,sadly straight into the lowering sun, and not one but several Lesser Pied Kingfishers as well as a Malachite - the latter one of my very favourite birds) Ebrima led us beyond the bridge and, once we'd photographed an African Mourning Dove feeding on the ground on the dusty roadside, off along a low bund that led along the edge of the muddy Mangrove marsh bordering the creek.

A fly-over Shikra did a fine demonstration of a typical Accipiter overhead, and a Western Red-billed Hornbill flew over and made its way onto my list. Further along, a couple of Little Bee-eaters gave excellent views at fairly close range in the increasingly golden evening light, which also enlivened a flockette of Senegal Parrots (tick) that flashed past on their way to roost.

Meanwhile we were being invited to look at birds Ebrima was rapidly picking out in bushes and trees. His eyesight was pretty amazing and his identification skills very good indeed. In fairly short order he found us a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, some foraging Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Fine-spotted and Grey Woodpeckers and a Splendid Sunbird. We also found for ourselves very obvious Pied Crows and some overflying Ring-necked Parakeets; flocks of Village Weavers and a few Red-billed Firefinches, and one or two Red-cheeked Cordonbleus and Bronze Mannikins.

Having arranged to meet Ebrima at 0730 in the morning, we made our way back to the hotel for a shower, dinner and a quick beer while we called the log before retiring. On the way we had a Wire-tailed Swallow hunting insects around the Kotu Bridge, and a quick look from the hotel's viewing platform found us a Broad-billed Roller as well as a Yellow-crowned Gonolek (tick) and the local Green Vervet Monkey troop - a tick under new taxonomy. After dark, intrigued by calls that sounded like tree frogs, we all had another look around the viewing platform and were startled by fruit bats (Gambian Epauletted Fruit Bats (mammal tick)) erupting from the vegetation.

A pretty decent first day!

John
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Old Friday 20th March 2020, 20:30   #5
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A few pictures:

Common Bulbul
Lesser Pied Kingfisher
African Mourning Dove
Senegal Parrot (I had an instinctive blast at this and it was the only even partly co-operative one all week)
Beetle sp
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Old Friday 20th March 2020, 21:32   #6
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Looking very good so far John, love the Lesser Pied Kingfisher....hope you got the Malachite?
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Old Friday 20th March 2020, 22:25   #7
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Great start John, looking forward to this.
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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 02:51   #8
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Ooooof! - you nailed that Pied Kingfisher!

Have to agree that raptors off the wingtip are less than ideal.

Looking forward to more.

Cheers
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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 10:32   #9
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Day Two: 8 January

Next morning and our first in-country breakfast. Early birders get continental at the Bakotu: hard-boiled eggs, bread and jam, cheese, yoghourt. Tea of course, and fruit juice. Bolt as much as possible between it turning up variable minutes after seven, and a seven-thirty pick-up to go birding. School dinners gave me an early grounding in rapid consumption of food that has never left me, a distinct advantage. I added definite Black Kite to the trip list.

Ebrima was pretty much on time with an SUV easily big enough for four of us, birding gear, himself and our driver Karanta, who I think must be at least an aspirant guide in his own right, plenty of birding ability (and a very good driver, no worries all week despite shocking city traffic.)

So off we went, back along the ring road (during which I picked up my first tick of the day with a flock of Piapiacs - basically black Magpies that go around in groups), past the airport, out of the suburbs, fork left in small settlement and eventually park up down a track threading through a ribbon-developed village along the main road inland. That's right, I don't know where we were. From a quick scan of Google maps it might have been Sere Kunda Nding (North side of the South Bank Road) but don't quote me. It'll be interesting to see what the actual answer turns out to be.

Perhaps I'll mention at this point that 8 January is my birthday, so every new bird today would add to my birthday tick total of one (the White-crowned Sparrow at Cley.) Also it was my first birthday spent abroad since I was born in the British Military Hospital in Singapore where my Dad was on an accompanied tour as an Admiralty civil servant. At ten months old on return to UK I remember nothing of that - I certainly expected to remember this one!

Ebrima announced that we would now go for a "short walk". This turned out to be a bit like a "Birdline mile" - an extremely flexible term that might mean what it said on the tin or could involve a three-hour trek. Lesson: take plenty of water whatever.....

Almost as soon as we set off, as we passed through a belt of trees and the track gave us a good view under the canopy, we were among the birds, with Western Red-billed Hornbill, Grey Woodpecker and another delightful but elusive Yellow-crowned Gonolek repeating yesterday's enjoyment and our first African Paradise Flycatcher of the trip adding more. A Shikra sitting up was also appreciated.

Further up the track we found a pair of African Grey Hornbills displaying to one another in a tree that was, perhaps inevitably, into the sun and difficult to turn to advantage. Nice anyway. A Black-headed Heron flew past (we didn't see all that many of these, which surprised me a bit, on other trips they've been all over the place) and our first Long-tailed Glossy Starlings (tick) were surprisingly unco-operative. A Black-billed Wood Dove (tick) ambled about on a side track that turned out to be the way we were going, so that wasn't there all that long! As we emerged from being bounded by bushes on both sides, to following a line only on our left with open grassland on our right and cultivated fields just beyond the hedge on our left, we finally had close views of Western Plantain-eaters that posed for pictures.

In the open it went a bit mad for a few minutes with a lot of species being seen quickly, the pick being a Wahlberg's Eagle overhead and a flock of Yellow-billed Shrikes (tick) that gave us fantastic views at close range for ages - until we were distracted by a Violet Turaco (fabulous birthday tick) that flapped heavily from trees on our left, right across the grassland to more solid forest on the far side - what a stonker!

Bearded Barbets (tick) then teased us from dense vegetation (we found them very reluctant to be photographed) and a quick look at the edge of the cultivation found a flock of seed-eating birds including Village Indigobirds and Pin-tailed Whydahs.

A Blue-breasted Roller offered us nice scope views from atop a termite mound (it, not us) but wouldn't allow a close approach past the small flock of Cattle Egrets accompanying an Intermediate Egret in foraging across the open ground. Is there a less satisfying bird in the world than an Intermediate Egret? The name screams mediocrity and the reality frankly isn't any better, lacking the elegance of Great White Egret and the spiky dash of Little. Maybe that's why it was hanging out with Cattle Egrets....

We now got among a bunch of sunbirds that were up for showing off all around a big bush with bunches of flowers sticking out at different points: photos of Beautiful and Variable Sunbird resulted as did birder delight at the iridescent feathers flashing in the sun. Two Wahlberg's Eagles regarded our antics from a nearby tree and were also photographed: at the far end of the open ground Yellow-billed Oxpeckers rode local Ndama cattle while White-throated Bee-eaters foraged for flying insects around them and their cow-pats. Both also supplied photo-opportunities that were very welcome, as did an Abyssinian Roller. Further out on the open ground Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters foraged from hardened old cattle excreta perches!

Overhead a few flypasts from Mottled Spinetails resulted in a tick but no great excitement as the views tended to be brief and moderately distant.

We followed Ebrima into an area of fairly dense bush within which he found us a Snowy-crowned Robin Chat. I had one of those meltdowns where everyone can get on the bird but you can't despite instructions, and desperation gradually makes things worse: fortunately the bird was as patient as my companions so I did see it properly, tick it and resume a normal heart-beat.

On the way back we had a photo-session with the Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, added Lavender and Black-rumped Waxbills to our lists (ticks) and bumped into a bunch of Dutch birders back at the tree-belt near the car where Northern Crombec and Northern Black Flycatcher were added to the day's ticks.

Back at the car it was with relief that we woofed down water from the bottles we now knew should accompany us all the time before heading for another site.

John
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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 10:37   #10
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Some pictures:

Shikra
African Grey Hornbill
Western Plantain-eater
Yellow-billed Shrike
Wahlberg's Eagle
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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 10:45   #11
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And more:

Intermediate Egret with Cattle Egrets
Beautiful Sunbird (male - I tend to ignore female sunbirds I'm afraid )
Hooded Vulture
Variable Sunbird
Violet Turaco
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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 10:49   #12
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Last from this site:

Abyssinian Roller
White-throated Bee-eater
Yellow-billed Oxpecker
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Bearded Barbet
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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 10:51   #13
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A vicarious pleasure John. Particularly when in quarantine.
I didn't really warm to The Gambia when we went 3 years ago - but the birds WERE fantastic.

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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 11:23   #14
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Great photos.
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Old Saturday 21st March 2020, 13:04   #15
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Good stuff. Those oxpeckers and the Turaco are fantastic! Keep it coming!
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2020, 08:40   #16
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A bit late reading this thread but I suffered a double go-around flying from Buenos Aires to Iguazu. Take off had been delayed a couple of hours because of bad weather but there was still a full on storm raging as we approached. No visible signs of a runway (when we left in better weather it just looked like a simple strip cut into the jungle) so presumably the pilot was completely depending on instrumentation. The cloud base was very low and when we eventually dropped below the clouds the tree tops were ridiculously close. We had missed the strip on the port side. Rapid ascent and swung round for a second attempt. Exactly the same happened, missed the runway, again on the port side. Round for a third attempt and the pilot announced that if this was unsuccessful were were heading back to Montevideo. Third time lucky and landed in a violent storm with bouncing rain. A fellow passenger with a pilot's licence told me that it wasn't the touch down that bothered him but possiblility of running out of runway.
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2020, 10:21   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sharpbill View Post
A bit late reading this thread but I suffered a double go-around flying from Buenos Aires to Iguazu. Take off had been delayed a couple of hours because of bad weather but there was still a full on storm raging as we approached. No visible signs of a runway (when we left in better weather it just looked like a simple strip cut into the jungle) so presumably the pilot was completely depending on instrumentation. The cloud base was very low and when we eventually dropped below the clouds the tree tops were ridiculously close. We had missed the strip on the port side. Rapid ascent and swung round for a second attempt. Exactly the same happened, missed the runway, again on the port side. Round for a third attempt and the pilot announced that if this was unsuccessful were were heading back to Montevideo. Third time lucky and landed in a violent storm with bouncing rain. A fellow passenger with a pilot's licence told me that it wasn't the touch down that bothered him but possiblility of running out of runway.
Sounds very dicey indeed! I guess that's why Harrier pilots used to say it's better to stop and land than to land and try to stop.....

John
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2020, 15:11   #18
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After our first "short walk" we drove to another site which is a "must visit" for anyone birding in Gambia (BTW I know the proper term is "The Gambia" but it feels wrong to me. Anyway the RN had "HMS Gambia", not "HMS The Gambia".)

This was Farasuta, and we parked up next to a small area of woodland that had carefully brushed clear earth paths through the huge quantities of dry crackly leaf-litter. Clearly we were expected to tiptoe silently on the dusty paths rather than crunching randomly through the trees. It was a bit like one of those mazes that are marked out on the ground rather than built or grown out of hedges. Following the guide, we ended up down a dead end, just beyond which a bit of pointing revealed a Long-tailed Nightjar sitting calmly and pretty much invisibly among the leaves despite being completely in the open! We shuffled quietly around to ensure everybody got the best views and opportunities to take their photos (dappled midday sunlight was quite harsh, so getting settings right took a little while) before moving onwards.

Next stop after more winding about through the woods turned out to be a female Standard-winged Nightjar, and we could approach even closer to this one than the last one - without it batting an eyelid! Any conversation was in hushed tones, while the susurration of shutters intermittently filled the air between more setting adjustments. What a fabulous bird, and point-blank as well. Pity it's not a male.... oh. Follow the guide again. Line up here. Look over there (straight towards the sun, which was reflecting brightly from the glossier dead leaves: can't have everything) - OMG. There is a male Standard-winged Nightjar WITH STANDARDS - and who'd have thought the standards would stand erect with the feathers laid out on the ground - birding simply doesn't get better than this!

The light was really really tricky but we did have plenty of time to work out how best to cope with it. I'm normally a complete Jonah with nightjars, on any trip I'm lucky if I even get the basic one: to me this woodland experience was simply incredible. The guide gestured us to head back along the path as a bunch of Dutch birders were just arriving for their go. Part way along Ebrima pointed out a Swallow-tailed Bee-eater sitting within the canopy - again, straight into the sun, but needs must: I took a couple of snaps and was later very glad of it as we didn't see one anywhere else.

Ebrima lead us along a different path branch to a tree from which two Greyish Eagle Owls, sitting side-by-side, regarded us with alternately alert and half-closed eyes and no apprehension at all. Fantastic! They weren't entirely in the open but please don't interpret that as any kind of complaint because quite honestly I was totally blown away by this place, mind reeling from the concentration of megas.

Back round the magic paths to the car, and a short drive to the main birdwatching spot at Farasuta: nicely shaded porcelain-tiled concrete benches with views of earthenware water bowls propped on the ground and low in bushes to attract in local birds for a drink or a wash. Cold drinks brought from somewhere (the heavily mango-flavoured fruit cocktail is my recommendation!) while we just watched the goodies come in and out.

Blue-spotted Wood Dove, the increasingly familiar Village Weavers, Black-necked Weavers for a tick; a Diederik Cuckoo that sat up on the left warily without ever coming down to drink, and an African Thrush that kept very much to the shadows. A Gambian Sun Squirrel (whose name seems to me to suggest bright warm colours but is just another yellow-brown-grey African tree squirrel) came in and out, drinking very quickly and skittering away, only to return a few minutes later and repeat the exercise. A Little Greenbul also turned up to one of the bowls briefly - tick but not an inspiring bird I'm afraid.

Then a real treat and a bird that does what it says on the tin: a Western Bluebill, with deep crimson-red plumage contrasting with black, set off by a glorious silver-blue conk. Absolute cracker and it stayed long enough for a proper look as well as some photos. A pair of Green-headed Sunbirds were an appreciated tick but managed to disprove their own name - that's the trouble with iridescence sometimes - every photo I took shows the head as blue in the shade at the drinking bowls.

Off on another walk, this time just locally, for a couple more special birds. One was an African Wood Owl sitting up, and while this owl was also a bit obscured it gave me a much better chance than my previous one on a night-drive in Zambia's South Luangwa, so I was happy with it. Near the owl's roost we encountered a Grey-headed Bristlebill, which was relentless in staying not only in deep shade but also among twiggery so very difficult to get a proper look at, let alone a photo. Still a birthday tick eventually though!

Back at the drinking bowls we had another short session during which a Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher came in - now that's not only a tick but a cracking bird! Both Brown and Blackcap Babblers (tick tick) gave themselves up during this bit of the day as well.

All of which pretty much ended the day's birding. A not too lengthy drive back (though the city rush-hour traffic was awful again) and a quick look at the creek left us time for a leisurely shower before gathering for a birthday and birding celebration in the hotel restaurant. However, before that Clare found a Gambian Epauletted Fruit Bat hanging up singing in the bare tree right outside our rooms and a scramble to assemble night rigs to photograph it ensued, fortunately successfully.

Embarrassingly it got to the ears of the waitress that it was my natal day and thence to the band, who not only sang a West African variation on "Happy Birthday" but continued to extemporise on the theme throughout their normal set. With a birder's instinct for merging with the landscape rather than standing out I didn't really enjoy this, but it turned out handy, because towards the end of the meal who should pop up by our table but Britseye of this parish, who had arrived in the early hours of the morning, guided by hearing my name chanted by the singer.

Needless to say this led to beers at the bar, where we were joined by his trip companion, Spider. A fine time was had by all: I can quite honestly say I've never had a birthday like it and I'd have to put it very close to the top of all the ones I have had! Thank you everybody who contributed, even the band.

John
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2020, 15:16   #19
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Farasuta photos, first the owl/nightjar wood:

Long-tailed Nightjar
Standard-winged Nightjar female
Standard-winged Nightjar male!!!
Swallow-tailed Bee-eater
Greyish Eagle Owl
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2020, 15:27   #20
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Pictures from the drinking bowls:

Little Greenbul
Western Bluebill
Blue-spotted Wood Dove being aggressive to African Thrush while Bronze Mannikin, Black-rumped and Lavender Waxbills hang out
Black-necked Weaver
Green-headed Sunbird showing blue head
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2020, 15:31   #21
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Back at the Bakotu Hotel:

Green Vervet Monkeys X 3. In the third one, yes, it has dropped off to sleep.
Gambian Epauletted Fruit Bat singing and displaying
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Old Sunday 22nd March 2020, 23:32   #22
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A terrific day's birding - and what a way to spend a birthday! Those nightjars are fabulous - and to have both in the same wood truly defines the term abundance of riches.

Add to that a bat with white and pink shoulder pom poms sining outside your window is utterly surreal - and definitely needed photographic evidence.

Cheers
Mike
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Old Monday 23rd March 2020, 07:36   #23
JWN Andrewes
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A belated happy birthday mate, sounds like one to cherish.

My best birthday for ticks was my 39th, in Belize. Common Black Hawk, Mangrove Warbler (gifted to me by IOC some years later), Wilson's Plover, American Pygmy Kingfisher and Hooded Oriole. Also came across a fall of migrant Warblers in the mangroves, Black-and-White, Common Yellowthroat, Prothonatory, American Redstart, Yellow-breasted Chat, many in full breeding finery, with a nearby lawn crawling with Palm & Myrtle.

That Standard-wing is the absolute business, and the turd-mounted Bee-eater is also a fabulous shot!

Looking forward to the rest.
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Old Monday 23rd March 2020, 18:08   #24
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Stunning stuff John.
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Old Tuesday 24th March 2020, 19:35   #25
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Great stuff, Gambia is on my list of places to visit once the world returns to normal... As for go-arounds, Ive experienced one, at the old Quito airport in bad weather. Go-arounds are usually due to wind-shear, bad weather or another aircraft not vacating the runway in time.
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