I can't believe its a month since the last post on here. Very sorry. Work giving me a laptop has interrupted my lockdown activities hugely!
I've also just noticed a caption error in post #85, in which I forgot to mention the Grey-headed Gull photo before the Caspian Tern. Oops.
We stopped at a street café for a late lunch on the way back into town and this was when I made the mistake of eating a single lettuce leaf before Maz could stop me. (I wolf food most of the time, its just fuel and is one of those tasks that gets in the way of birding.) I paid the price later but then that's why we pack Imodium which, in case you've never had recourse to it, works! Quite enough of that....
Leaving there Karanta dropped us off near one of the hotels short of where our own was and Ebrima led us round the side of it to eventually start following a narrow path between mangroves on one side and the wall of some grounds on the other. This got steadily damper and then muddy, and turned into a line of tyres we were supposed to stride along. Steve and Ebrima soon disappeared into the distance while I was left escorting the girls, who made a complete meal of teetering along what was perfectly walkable: and when the wall on the left ran out, well!
We made our way onwards but when the tyres started to be full of retained seawater from the tide, the pace dropped until snails were racing past us. With an uncomfortable feeling of an impending dip I did my best to encourage them onwards and eventually we arrived at the shabby remains of a hide, falling not-so-gradually into total disrepair. On the far side of it the water's edge nudged the outer line of the mangroves and along the bottom two Painted Snipe lurked and moved cautiously.
Steve had already got his photos but admitted that getting an angle - and coping with the strong sunlight dappled by dark shade - was difficult. The state of the hide made it even more so, and I eventually found the best lines were to be had by standing on the ground and bending over to lean on the floor of the hide - what there was of it!
If getting in had been a performance getting out was more of one. Ebrima confidently led us towards an anticipated path that should give us a short escape route but this proved at the current time to be impassable and after probing several alternatives we ended up entirely retracing our steps with all the displeasure this generated in the girls (Maz in particular seemed disposed to blame the entire episode on me, I wonder about marriage sometimes) that came to a head when Maz put her foot down a hole and fell over. Naturally this happened just before we reached "safety" and not only turned out to be also my fault but my suggestion that she had stopped concentrating and should in any case take more responsibility for her own actions sent her approximately into orbit.
Anyway, in short order we were back by the Kotu bridge where a Black Heron was doing its thing as the Umbrella Bird close to the bridge, affording us the best opportunity of the holiday to photograph this behaviour. It was a real treat to watch this local speciality giving us a command performance.
Ebrima then led us into the area behind the Guide Association hut. This has a small reserve with a hide. First before it and then viewable from it was a White-crowned Robin Chat, which gave us difficult views in bushes and then mind-blowing ones on the open ground in front of the hide, so the camera shutters were quickly chattering. As if this wasn't enough - less than ten yards from the Kotu Bridge where we had spent a reasonable amount of time doing unpressured birding and had imagined we'd seen most of what was on offer - Ebrima then found for us a singing male Oriole Warbler right over the Guide Association office that we were able to photograph against the sky with a bit of manoeuvring around to shoot away from the sun. It even crossed the road to sing from the bushes right where we normally stood to watch the creek. Heigh ho!
Some discussion resulted in us booking a boat trip on the Kotu Creek for our last morning, and we then parted from Ebrima to walk back to the hotel and sort ourselves out for the evening and for going home on the morrow.
Up as usual pre-dawn and preparing the gear for one more proper birding session prior to being coached to the airport and making our way home: we'd already done the majority of the packing with gaps left for shoving the last few bits of birding gear that weren't going as hand baggage into cases.
Our boat was booked early so we were ready for breakfast before it was ready for us: so we started a day that was bound to have a lot of waiting around, by waiting around. We woofed down as much as possible since - again - food availability might become a bit erratic later. Then it was an easy stroll down to Kotu bridge to find that Ebrima had turned up to facilitate the start of our boat trip. He wasn't on our hire for today so we were quite touched by this and certainly pleased to see him.
By the time we were settled in the boat (I got the single bow seat, I suspect as the broadest and heaviest passenger) the sun was coming up and there was enough light for photography. There was, for once, no wind: and the atmosphere was cool and still. Very nice! The canoe/pirogue was poled away from the landing place and up the creek towards the first small groups of Senegal Thick-knees standing around at the margins of the mangroves. There was a bit of squeaking from behind me as the boat rocked from side to side but it quickly subsided as we came close to shorebirds completely indifferent to our proximity.
The boatman took his time and seemed to have a good grasp of not only how to put us in the right place but also how long to stay there. He was also easy to talk to if we needed a few seconds more, or a slightly different angle, and his boat handling was skilful and precise. We proceeded slowly, taking in familiar Greenshanks and Black-winged Stilts as well as the thick-knees, Spur-winged and Wattled Plovers. Seated in the boat we were shooting almost level with our subjects which was great. We began to encounter Western Reef Herons, Reed Cormorants and Pied Kingfishers, the last looking interestedly down on us almost as if we might be prey.
We had to negotiate a couple of low bridges as we kept on upstream, ducking to avoid a painful bang on the head: presumably these limit progress at higher tide states because it was pretty much low tide and with more water the headroom wouldn't have been there at all. Our boat grounded on a number of occasions, the boatman working it off the mud again with more skilful boat handling and finding the last inch of extra depth to continue on. Tall trees on our left held Black and Yellow-billed Kites, still in their overnight roosts, but now we came to one of the treats of the whole trip: close encounters with Malachite Kingfishers, which like almost all the other birds let us up within a few feet to take whatever shots we wanted.
Eventually we reached the navigable limit of the creek, which was determined by again grounding and this time taking some time before the boatman hopped off and pushed us back to slightly deeper water before climbing back in and setting off downstream. A final bonus was a couple of confiding Wood Sandpipers, which prior to this boat trip I would have said was a contradiction in terms.
Back at the Kotu Bridge we thanked the boatman profusely for his management of our excursion and also thanked Ebrima once again for everything really, including this morning especially, talking us into the creek boat trip.
We still had one bit of birding left in us!
Western Reef Heron
Lesser Pied Kingfisher
Senegal Thick-knee X 2
Back at the hotel we walked through the grounds and out of the back, taking the narrow path along the edge of the mangroves to the nearby golf course, which Graham had told us held Double-spurred Francolins, a bird we still hadn't managed to photograph - most views being not only brief but also of their rapidly retreating backs.
Having reached the golf course we spent some time searching around it. The francolins were definitely not wandering about in plain sight so it became a matter of finding the thickest cover and looking around and through it. We found Hoopoes, Green Woodhoopoes, bulbuls, hornbills and even a pair of Black-headed Lapwings but francolins remained elusive. No change there!
Other birders were also wandering about the golf course - fortunately there weren't many golfers - but they had not had any luck either. We found a smart looking dragonfly that sat for photos: we felt we'd got enough to sort it out once we got home. Eventually we found an area where loose sand revealed lines of what looked suspiciously like francolin footprints and we followed these up at once. They led to and from a thick copse of lowish bushes not far from where we had entered the golf course - wouldn't you know it!
Circling the bushes we finally found a couple of Double-spurred Francolins but they, like all the rest of their tribe across Gambia, weren't having any of it and legged it at high speed through vegetation that we couldn't penetrate. I got no shots at all, Steve and Clare might have managed a desperate blip. And that was pretty much that. We headed back to the hotel to have a final wash, put on travelling outfits, drink as much bottled water as we had left, finish packing and prepare to be picked up by the coach that would take us to the airport.
Once the bags were in the luggage compartments and we were on the air-conditioned coach it was over apart from a last few birds for the day list: 3 Piapiacs, Laughing Doves, Vinaceous Dove and 10+ Little Swifts went into the notebook on our way to the airport, and a Northern Grey-headed Sparrow claimed the place of last in the list actually there.
The new terminal wasn't finished and we had to go through the old un-air-conditioned big shed to clear immigration with another pointless form, go through security and then trot across to the new terminal to lounge around waiting for our flight. At least the bar was open and Maz could go shopping for a few bits she hadn't already got while I watched the bags and coats. The systems really weren't up to scratch yet, fair enough in an unfinished building, and finding out where and when our flight was actually going to happen proved a bit of a challenge that ended up with a scuttle across the crowded floor (remember crowds?) to the opposite end from where we thought it was supposed to be. Not just us - pretty much the whole of our aircraft's passenger cohort!
We queued not quite under the blazing sun, there was a canopy, but the wind blowing across the concrete and baked airport earth was hot and dry. We were glad to get onto the aircraft and settled into our seats for the six-hour flight back. Captain Speaking was upbeat about the flight, saying there was a good tailwind and we should be able to knock a load of time off the schedule. Good. Home early. Just the job. (I'd let my colleagues know I was reserving the right to not come in on the Monday depending how our return went, hoping to save a day's leave.)
We took off without hitting any wildlife and headed straight North across Senegal and the fringes of the Sahel/Sahara. There was occasional turbulence but given that the pilot was trying to make the best of the tailwind that was no great surprise. I'd kept a camera body and all my used cards handy so I could pass the time editing down the number of photos to something manageable. It also came in handy for photographing the sunset high over the edge of Africa.
We had kept in touch with the weather back in Britain and we were aware that a storm was due in sometime on the day of our return. Much of Europe was under cloud as we returned, which meant I couldn't easily work out where we were from town lights and so on. As we reached the UK and began to descend we were quickly into the clag and turbulence returned, rather worse than earlier. Captain Speaking had warned us the weather was going to be a bit bad but it quickly deteriorated into more than a bit, with the A320 dropping, lurching, wing rocking substantially and generally lacking stability.
The passengers, or some of them, also began to lack stability. As our descent continued and the flaps and undercarriage came down but the lurching about if anything got worse, a certain amount of screaming began from the distaff side and indeed some shouting from the Gambian men on the flight, who accused the crew of playing games with their lives, and that they only had one life! Personally my view is always that the crew are in the same boat and will hit whatever we hit first, but fear is fear and people deal with it in different ways.
My way generally involves wanting to see what is going on, even though I have no control of it, so I was looking out of the window at the cloud swirling by, lit at regular intervals by the red and white anti-collision strobe lights on wings and fuselage. It did give the situation a slight Gotterdammerung feel... As we dropped out of the bottom of the cloud I began narrating what I could see, ostensibly to Maz though she was engaged in keeping Clare from hyperventilating with a stream of breathing instructions, but loud enough for others nearby in the cabin to hear, and my best calm voice. I was anything but calm, this was really unpleasant and worrying.
"I can see the ground... we're crossing the M23, nearly there, airfield boundary ahead" and the aircraft lurched nose down, wings rocked far more than an airliner on finals should, and it was stick back, throttles forward, clunk of gear up and we climbed back into the clag, accelerating. S*** and d*** and b*****.
Even though we were at climbing power and cleaned up the aircraft was still bouncing and dropping and lurching and rocking really quite a lot. Noise level in the cabin went up a LOT. Much screaming and shouting and a sense of very considerable panic. I began to worry we'd have someone unstrap and go a bit mad, but nobody did. Of course Gatwick in Southern England is a different airspace from Banjul and the crew needed to talk to not only Gatwick Tower but whichever bit of the National Air Traffic Service covers controlled airspace there to take care of our immediate future in this normally crowded area, so it was a few minutes before we were addressed. The news was not hugely reassuring. "Sorry about that, we decided to abort the approach - " Noticed that. " - we're going round now, we'll have another go at getting in, and if that doesn't work we're going to Stansted."
This is getting better by the minute. We've got a taxi waiting for us at Gatwick and no arrangements at Stansted - obviously. On the other hand if we can't land, we can't.
By now a number of passengers were indicating that given the choice they'd just as soon skip another go at Gatwick and just go straight to Stansted. One of the Gambians was holding forth again on the subject of his one life and the crew playing games with it, and he too would prefer to go to Stansted. Well all in all, I wouldn't, and the crew have already made their decision so sit back and enjoy the ride, I didn't say. I very nearly laughed out loud when a voice that must have been attached to Miss Essex 2019 declaimed loudly that we should have been allowed to vote on it and she would have voted for straight to Stansted. Airliners are not democracies and are not run by referenda!
So we went round again. It seemed to take forever, but eventually we were lined up and descending, and though the air was by no means still and I was - like everyone else - waiting for the big lurches to start again, it seemed to me that this wasn't as bad as the first approach. I began to hope we'd make it (not in an absolute sense, just that we'd get on the ground here). Flaps down. Gear down. The aircraft seems pretty stable, just a few minor tremors in the flightpath.
Out of the clag again. Lovely lights of Surrey below us. I resumed my commentary, a bit louder than last time. "Here comes the M23... over that now, still descending.... airfield boundary.... 500 feet or less... still descending... we're going to make this..."
Readers of my Western Sahara report may recall I felt that in optimum conditions the pilots managed less than optimum impacts with the runway, and I use the word impact quite deliberately. Not this boy. Having brought the aircraft down through a named storm he greased it onto the runway so gently that the difference between flying and being on the ground was only perceptible by looking out of the window or listening to the roar as the thrust reversers added their weight to the aircraft braking. Possibly the best landing I've ever been on or ever will.
There was spontaneous applause.
I need hardly say that it was raining: Gatwick Airport's surfaces gleamed in its own lights as we taxied in.
Disembarking, I paused to thank the pilot and crew, and commented on how smooth the landing was. He grinned and responded "When it's hard, you try harder!"
By now the airport had been shut: I understand we were the last arrival that night. The entrance to the South terminal had also been shut, by the police, so we had to take the shuttle to the North Terminal to meet our taxi driver. Minor nause, but it was by now later than we had been scheduled to arrive despite the catching up during the flight (mind you, without that we might have been straight to Stansted or even Schiphol, which accepted some Gatwick refugees!)
No way was I going into work on Monday.
Last couple of pictures:
Julia Skimmer on the golf course (as far as I can work out: there's a very similar congener but this seems to fit best.)
Sunset at cruising altitude: you gotta finish with a sunset!