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Footsteps in the Gambia - November 2016 (1 Viewer)

Digbert Doobrey

Well-known member
This is a quick report of a weeks trip to the Gambia from 3/11/16 to 10/11/16. There are many reports from this popular destination on this forum both in this section and in the Gambia thread so I won't dwell too much on all the general info about the country suffice to say that post brexit the pound has dropped in value a bit so you wont get so much for your buck.

The previous two Novembers I had birding trips by organised bird companies cancelled due to lack of numbers because of the ebola crisis (which didn't hit the Gambia) so because of that and also not having as large a budget this year I stumped for a package deal. Looking at the Thomas Cook site I narrowed it down to the Bakotu hotel or Footsteps eco-lodge. Having read too many negative stories about the bird guides chasing business around the tourist areas I settled on Footsteps. I had seen this place on Dave Gosney's excellent DVD of the Gambia and also it is situated about 10 miles south of the Senegambia area in a more rural area not too far from the southern Senegal border. Also it is quite close to the Kartong bird observatory which was a site I definately wanted to visit.

Footsteps lodge is a perfect place for a birder to stay. It has a fresh water pool which attracts all manner of birds. Within the grounds there is a bird hide where you can happily spend hours watching birds both closeby and passing through at a distance and everywhere in between. Although I didnt make a count of birds seen only in the lodge I totalled 192 birds overall and I would guess around half of these could be seen from inside or around the lodge. The owner David is very much aware of how birders are attracted to the Gambia and can advise you on the how to get the best out of your visit to his lodge and your entire holiday. The lodge has a website easily found on the net.

You can walk around the local area. There is a mixture of very appealing habitat such as scrub, woodland wetlands and the coastline. Best to take the local guide at the lodge Sanami the first time you go out. He'll badger you anyway to let him take you to his 'secret forest' or his 'secret wetland' but he is a lovely fella and he wont charge you a fortune.

I booked three full day trips with Footsteps in house bird guide Lamin to all the regular sites around coastal Gambia. These were £70 each and included a driver plus a packed lunch. You might be able to make some trips yourself by just hiring a taxi but as this was my first trip to the Gambia I didn't wan't the hassle of arranging all this each time I went somewhere so I settled for the trips the lodge provided. Besides Thomas Cook gave me the flight from hell on the way out there so once I got to the Gambia I wanted the rest of my holiday planned out and settled so I could just kick back and relax and not have to 'wing it' each day.

Incidentally the flight from hell involved Thomas Cook informing us when we all boarded the plane that it would be stopping at Gran Canaria to refuel. Eh! Whats that about. No one said anything about this when I booked. We then taxi-ed out on to the runway and back again three times before we took off due to a technical fault that was never properly explained. The plane took off five hours late meaning that I missed half a day of my holiday and no birds due to landing after dark. All to do with Thomas Cook saving a few quid on the fuel I would suspect but as 300 people will be putting in compensation claims there will be a few Thomases well and truly cooked if we can get some money back.

Special mention will go to two sites in particular. Pirang shrimp farm and Kartong bird observatory. Wetland sites are my favourite birding locations and you will fill your boots at these two. At Pirang, if they are in the process of farming the military wont let you in, although you might get access to the surrounding areas. There was no farming at this time so we were allowed in. I'm told its often a case of whether the guide you have is friendly enough with the guards as to whether your allowed or not. As you will find out if you go everything in the Gambia is a bit hit and miss so best to check with a guide before you plan a trip to Pirang. Some of the lagoons here are stuffed full of Herons, Egrets, Waders, Pelicans and Spoonbills. I saw my only Lanner Falcon here. Yellow-billed Stork and Woolly-necked Stork also.

I saved my best trip for my last day. This was Kartong bird observatory run by Colin Cross. Colin is a birder from Norwich who is an experienced bird ringer now involved with logging records in the Gambia. His house overlooks a sadly unprotected area which is a large wetland incuding several lagoons, scrub, forest and a short stroll to the sea. Think of Cley/Titchwell/Minsmere in the UK but set in Gambia very close to the Senegal border. Colin is clearly passionate about birding and his knowledge of the local wildlife and the Gambia in general is second to none. Not sure of the total figure of birds recorded there but I'm sure he said he had recorded well over 350 species. His son is currently building a property close by which also overlooks a lagoon. The property will be rented which would also make a great place to stay for any birder visiting the Gambia. Again the observatory has its own website. Highlights on my trip there were Gabar Goshawk, Black-shouldered Kite, Dwarf Bittern, Four-banded Sandgrouse, Painted Snipe. A boat trip on the Senegal border that Colin organised gave me my two last new birds of my holiday; Goliath Heron and African Fish Eagle. Not a bad way to end the birding.

A man on the plane on the way over said you will either fall in love with the place or hate it. Not too sure about that overused cliche so I'll use another one. There are loads of things you will love about the Gambia and there are loads that you wont. However as far as the birding is concerned you WILL love it trust me especially if you have not been to Africa before.

I'm not going to list all the birds I'll just pick out some highlights. Some of these are quite common in the Gambia but almost all were lifers for me;

African Darter
White-backed Night Heron
Dwarf Bittern
Black Heron
Goliath Heron
Yellow-billed Stork
Woolly-necked Stork
African Spoonbill
Osprey
African Fish Eagle
Palm-nut Vulture
Black-shouldered Kite
Beaudouin's Snake Eagle
African Harrier Hawk
Long Crested Eagle
Lizard Buzzard
Gabar Goshawk
Dark Chanting Goshawk
Tawny Eagle
Grey Kestrel
White-fronted Plover
Greater Painted Snipe
Four-banded Sandgrouse
African Green Pigeon
Green Turaco
Violet Turaco
Levaillant's Cuckoo
African Wood Owl
Greyish Eagle Owl
Verreaux's Eagle Owl
Northern White-faced Owl
Long-tailed Nightjar
Seven species of Kingfisher - all beauties. Only missed Grey Headed and the ultra rare Shining-blue
Little, Swallow-tailed, and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Rufous-crowned, Blue-bellied, and Broad-billed Roller
African Pied Hornbill
Bearded Barbet
Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher
Common Wattle-eye
Pygmy Sunbird
Scarlet-chested Sunbird
Beautiful Sunbird
Splendid Sunbird
Yellow-crowned Gonolek
African Golden Oriole
Purple Glossy Starling
Northern Red Bishop
Lavender Waxbill

I only intended to list around 20 birds but as I went through the guide book there were just so many birds I'd seen that stood out. In fact they are all lifers apart from Osprey, which were very common around the coastal wetlands. Very hard to pick out just a few crackers. The White-backed Heron was a huge bonus found along with three of the Owls in Farasutu forest. The birds I were really looking forward to were the Kingfishers and they are just beautiful. The raptors are gorgeous too. But the one bird I was most looking forward to seeing was quite a common bird and is even more breathtaking when seen, especially in flight, and thats the Blue-bellied Roller.
 
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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Thanks Digbert!

Sounds like a great place to get an introduction to Africa. (I've never been, myself.) I am especially intrigued by the fact that there's an Observatory that can be visited - I am a bit of a ringer myself, here in Canada, would really like to see how it goes on another continent.

Peter
 

Digbert Doobrey

Well-known member
Thanks

If you do visit The Gambia Kartong is not to be missed but if you are a ringer you'll love it even more because Colin clearly loves what he does and I'm sure he'd love to meet fellow ringers from around the world.
 

Digbert Doobrey

Well-known member
These photos might not have come out as big as I would've liked. I had trouble uploading them and its only a bridge camera anyway so there not sharp pics. Still I hope you enjoy and get a bit of the Gambia flavour.
 

Allen

Well-known member
Just out of interest what currency did you take/use? Local delasi? I am off there on 28th November. Also did you get any sense of political troubles in the run up to the election on 1st December?
 

Foxy

Well-known member
Thomas Cook are easily the worst airline I have ever flown with. In fairness their holidays are usually good when you get there but they run the flights like a second rate budget airline, not least the rude staff and pathetic luggage allowances for longer flights. I have had much better service on Easy Jet and Ryan Air to name but two.
Your report sounds mouth watering and definitely on the bucket list! Did you arrange the birding trips from Footsteps before you travelled or is it ok once you are there?
 
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Digbert Doobrey

Well-known member
I took UK sterling and used that most of the time. I changed a bit into local dalasi at the lodge and at the nearest village just to use as tips here and there. No sense of political unrest, most people seem to expect that the election will be rigged, although I was advised not to get into discussions with the locals about politics. So I didn't.

I emailed the owner about booking trips and he said wait until I get there and book them at the lodge so that's when I booked them. That's probably the best way as you talk to the guide about what you want before you book any trips.

One thing to note. Do not take anything, clothes or bags, that have a camouflage pattern on them. I had a camouflage patterned rucksack and got questioned both arriving at the airport and leaving. Camouflage is very heavily associated with the military in Gambia and they are very suspicious of anyone wearing it.
 

MSA

I may be relaxed but I'm not drunk....
From memory, pound coins were popular as tips, and the exchange rate (should you wish to change currency) was better there than in UK by a large margin, about 20% I think!
 

Digbert Doobrey

Well-known member
Another thing I forgot to mention is that there is no early morning or late evening birding in The Gambia. It gets dark very quickly around 7pm and doesn't get light again until between 6.30am and 7am. I'm told it's pretty much the same all year round. All the wonderful birding in the 12 hours of daylight makes up for this of course but you'll need a torch and probably a guide to look for owls/nightjars for any early morning/evening birding. On my first night I didn't get much sleep but was left kicking my heels for what seemed a lifetime waiting for daylight to get out there and start birding.
 

Foxy

Well-known member
Whilst I've always managed to get up at whatever time I've needed to I can't pretend I've ever truly been an early morning person. I reckon the Gambia would suit me just fine!
 

Jungle

Active member
Hi Digbert,

You are too modest, these photos are very impressive.

You say it is only a Bridge Camera, but could you elaborate on what make/model.

I have supposedly upgraded from Bridge to DSLR and am still wondering if I have made the right choice, I am really missing the flexibility of a Bridge Cam.

Cheers, George
 

Digbert Doobrey

Well-known member
Thanks.

It's a Canon sx60. I too went from a bridge to an SLR but as I can't carry bins, scope, and a big camera and lens at the same time I just went back to a bridge. I'm not that big on photography anymore as I found myself worrying too much about getting great shots instead of enjoying just seeing the birds so now I just carry the bridge camera to get a few record pics after I've had a good look at the birds.
 

Foxy

Well-known member
I use both a DSLR and a Canon SX50, the SLR sparingly when I'm going to see something specific and the SX50 most of the time: it is brilliant for travelling when you don't use half your luggage allowance on camera and lenses, and the SX50 gives great results. Yours are superb, why lug the SLR when you get pictures like these and you are not intending to sell or publish them?
The only downsides are focussing on a bird in a bush or confusing foregrounds and trying to follow or pick up fast moving/flying birds when an SLR is needed.
 

Dave Williams

Well-known member
I got back from a 10 day trip to The Gambia last night. Travelling with a friend we had 5 nights at the Bakotu Hotel in Kotu, 3 in Tendaba and 2 in Baobolong camp in Georgetown. We only managed a few more species in total than you did, 209.Mind you we were not chasing numbers, more interested in picking up one or two up river species.
Having been before my overall impression was a distinct lack of birds down at the coast. Kotu Creek and surrounds was very quiet compared to previous visits but I put that down to being a bit early in the season still.
What was noticeable was that things were more expensive compared to 20 months ago on my last visit. The exchange rate of 52-53 dalasai was down from 72.
I note with interest the charges for your day trips. Our guide charged a lot more than that.
I will write a blog in due course but I would add the warnings about camouflage. Our driver was questioned as to why my tripod had camouflage at a military checkpoint, mind you the soldier didn't know what the tripod was used for either. I was also detained briefly by a policeman whose picture I accidentally took as our car drove slowly past him as we pulled in to town. Thought I might lose the camera for a while as he disappeared off with it whilst leaving me in the police station!
 

cassowary

Well-known member
Also did you get any sense of political troubles in the run up to the election on 1st December?

Slightly off-topic but a quick google of Yahya Jammeh gives you an idea what a 'colourful' and popular chap he is. The election I'm guessing will run smoothly. BTW the only place I saw any military presence in zangaro oops I mean the gambia when I went a while ago was at the airport, palace and border crossings with Senegal; hopefully that is till the case.
 
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