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
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!
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.
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.
A couple of Palaearctic migrants I forgot near the end of the last stint included a Redstart shaking its tail from the bushes and a Montagu's Harrier that didn't give our cameras a chance but was nice to see.
A short drive took us to a roadside pool with a nice little rocky outcrop to park our backsides on. Not well upholstered but better than standing - or walking....
Doves hurtled in to drink at the shallow pool's edges from all angles. They flew low and fast like fighter-bombers, dropped onto the hoof-churned red mud, sipped quickly and shot off with whirring wings as fast they had arrived. In stupendous quantities, at least the small Vinaceous Doves: Speckled Pigeons were few, Mourning Doves fewer, Namaqua Doves occasional. But Vinaceous Doves came, and came, and kept coming throughout our stay. We expected raptors - it seemed the doves did too - but none bothered to turn up. Nor did any sandgrouse or other goodies, though a couple of Striped Ground Squirrels added one to our mammal tally as they alternated scampering and freezing to watch warily around the pool. As the sun sank towards the horizon we reboarded the car and headed home for dinner.
By the time we'd eaten and called the log (which we managed to do every night of the trip, pretty disciplined eh?) it had been full dark for some considerable time. Steve retired but Maz, Clare and I took a turn round the compound with the spotlight. We saw nothing but heard, distantly, African Scops Owl and something that sounded quite like a Tawny Owl. Ebrima said the next morning that this was a Northern White-faced Owl - another of those birds everyone thinks are easy but which I've never connected with.
And another day ended. Nearly.... A hornet was buzzing round the veranda light, so we avoided that carefully and entered our room. Just about ready for bed, I felt the need to pay a visit, and was sitting naked on the loo when the ominous sound of buzzing began above me, interspersed with a tinny "donk" of insect versus light bulb. Just what I need in my exceptionally vulnerable and stranded state, the likelihood of a hornet driven psychotic by light and impact falling into my lap!
Suddenly it stopped dead. I completed my own actions and investigated. It had really stopped dead, the hornet was being packaged by a large, very leggy spider. Thank you very much and goodnight, I remarked to it, and headed for bed.
Up as usual before dawn after a fairly comfortable night: it was cold though! Maybe it was cold relative to the heat of the days...
By daylight we were up and dressed and I was out hunting around for male Pygmy Sunbirds. Unfortunately the only one I found wasn't in plumage. Nothing else was really showing off - even a look from the observation tower in the corner of the compound produced nothing - so we attacked breakfast and were soon afterwards on our way, again starting somewhere near where we had been the previous evening. There was delight for Clare when the vehicle flushed a couple of Warthogs. The only real "safari mammal" of the trip, they trotted across fields, across the track, into the bushes, back on the track ahead of us - could I pick them up? No! Eventually I got a distant view of their backsides just before they disappeared. I mean, really, what hope is there if you can't spot a pig in the open?
Not long after that we stopped and had a short walk, which produced excellent views of Western Red-billed Hornbill (again, I know, but I don't see them in Farnborough!) and photo-opps with Namaqua Dove, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver. Ebrima was obviously looking for something else and he came up with it after a while: a family party of Speckle-fronted Weavers (tick) still feeding the juveniles, which enabled both individual portraits and group photos of the action.
After that it was back to the main road and we continued West along the North Bank, stopping to walk fields to look for bustards (no luck but a scuttling Double-spurred Francolin- marginally better view than the first one - Whinchat, Woodchat, Fan-tailed Warbler, a couple more Black-headed Lapwings and a Flappet Lark.
Returning to the bus we carried on but stopped for a full plumage male whydah that turned out to be Sahel Paradise Whydah and a tick as well as a ludicrous-looking spectacular bird. If I remember correctly Ebrima thought this was a bit early and the dry season must be biting hard further North to send them down already. Good for us birders - maybe not so good environmentally.
Just after that a roadside pool produced Gosling's Bunting, another split and therefore tick, but we hurried on to the next site because it was time for a biggie. Trouble is I'm not exactly sure where we were: judging from a subsequent report on Surfbirds it may have been Njow/Nja Kunda. We drove a little way up a dirt track and stopped not far from a shrinking pool edged with cattle-trampled mud: hurriedly climbing out we saw Wood and Green Sandpipers, a Jacana, Cattle Egrets, Spur-winged Plover - and, oh joy unconfined, a sleek elegant Egyptian Plover! An instant candidate for bird of the trip. It was bigger than I'd expected, somehow the proportions in photos and illustrations had left me imagining a chunky Ringed Plover-size bird but this was bigger than that and despite its lines and markings (I mean, this bird looks as if the colour scheme was designed by a top class car or aircraft company) there is a robustness about it. In between grilling it we added Little Swift and Red-rumped Swallow, plus a single Marabou spiralling high above. There was then a total cock-up when literally none of us heard Ebrima calling a Red-throated Bee-eater which would have been a tick. These things happen, it wasn't Ebrima's fault but our own.
We went for a short walk, finding a large (by normal standards) flock of Red-billed Quelea, our only Little Green Bee-eater of the trip and a Red-chested Swallow.
Around now he and Karanta got considerably distracted by youths hunting birds with a catapult. At the start of the season there had been eight Egyptian Plovers, on Ebrima's previous visit two, now one. Lemme see... Anyway in short order the catapult was confiscated and the youths ears considerably bent with a lecture on the law and economic realities of Gambia's situation. They went off and fetched their father on an ancient moped: he got the same lecture with the added spice of being told the penalty for killing protected birds was a ruinous fine and/or three months in jail, but claimed our heroes had stolen the catapult and he was fetching the cops. Guess what? that resulted in the same lecture including the economics of it (a second birding group had by now arrived to add weight to this argument): a small fee was paid for the catapult but it wasn't returned and Ebrima agreed to return and negotiate terms with the cops and village elders to enable the village to benefit financially from the visitors for the Egyptian Plovers. I guess this sounds more than a bit like bribery but the alternative is plain: indeed by Ebrima's next trip up there was a dip. Maybe it will be in place and working by next season (whenever that turns out to be....)
After this we were more than ready for the packed lunch of baguettes and salads that Ebrima produced at a stop by a roadside pool as we headed back East again. It was the same pool that we had seen Gosling's Bunting at earlier and, relaxing with food in the shade of bushes, we now got better views of them as well as another male Sahel Paradise Whydah and assorted small finches. By the time we left there our equilibrium was somewhere near normal.
On the road again: wetland pause and lunch stop at roadside pool. I didn't mention the wetland pause - we didn't even get out of the vehicle, but about a thousand White Storks (with more dropping out of the sky) were in a marsh by a tributary of the Gambia river with extensive dried out flats on which a bunch of Collared Pratincoles were running about.
Many White Storks
Sahel Paradise Whydah