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Gambia Rainy Season Birding, 1-6 Oct., 2018 (1 Viewer)


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Five days of birding the Banjul peninsula to upcountry at Janjanbureh. 190 species total, including 32 life birds. I consider this a fine result for this season. Vegetation is still lush, roads are muddy, wildlife are not yet concentrating at watering holes, and Holarctic migrants are just starting to return. If you visit during the dry season (aka, peak tourist season, from November to April), you can expect higher numbers if you care about that sort of thing. Compensating benefits were that we got to see birds in breeding plumage and we generally had the lodges to ourselves. Our guide was Ebou Barry, ([email protected], Bird Tours Gambia, http://www.birdtoursgambia.com/, +2207161202).

Trip report

Day 1. Got into Banjul Airport around 6 pm, where we were met by our guide, Ebou Barry. We went straight to Kotu Creek, where we birded until dusk. Highlights: Palm-nut Vulture, 4 kingfishers, good variety of waders and skulking birds in the mangroves. Dark-chanting Goshawk and Lizard Buzzard were noted on the drive.
Full eBird check lists with photos:

Day 2. Owls!
Drove to Pirang Forest. Noted Bearded Barbet on the way. Encountered heavy rain, which persisted through our first stop. Local wardens Caoutchou and Miriam guided us through the forest to a roosting Verreaux's Eagle-Owl. Good looks but no photos due to rain.

We then proceeded to Farasuto Forest Community Nature Preserve. Our local guide was Bach, who led us to a marsh where we got furtive glimpses of 2 White-backed Night-Herons. He then showed us an African Wood-Owl and 2 day-roosting Grayish Eagle-Owls. Spectacular! Other highlights included more kingfishers and a Bearded Barbet.

On to Karaffi Farm. As far as I can tell, this is not a standard birding stop and it took us awhile to talk our way onto the farm. The pay-off was two beautiful Marsh Owls coursing over the weedy fields. Wooly-necked Stork was bonus bird.

After lunch in Ebou’s village, we went to the gardens at Farasuto Forest Community Nature Preserve, where we enjoyed good looks at African Pygmy-Kingfishers.

We ended the day back at Kotu Creek, where we walked the golf course and visited the waste treatment plant, Badala Park hotel, and the bridge. Enjoyed African Green Pigeons, Fanti Sawing, a Long-crested Eagle flying away, and a Pearl-spotted Owlet that Ebou patiently called into the Badala Park hotel grounds.

Day 3. We spent the morning at Pirang Fish Ponds. The ponds are challenging to bird without a scope and I’m generally conversant in African wading birds from my time in Senegal. Nonetheless, a later review of my photos revealed Black-tailed Godwits and African Spoonbills for the life list. We also enjoyed seeing Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Black-faced Quailfinch, Yellow-crowned Bishop, and 2 soaring Yellow-billed Storks. A displaying Black-headed Weaver was super-charming. Red-rumped Swallows were coming down to the mud puddles to collect nest-building material. With some persistence, we were able to track down Willow Warbler, Common Chifchaff, and Western Olivaceous Warbler (good stuff for this American birder).

From Pirang, we drove upcountry to Tendaba Camp. A brief stop en route produced 3 White Helmetshrikes, Senegal Batis, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, and singing Klaas’s Cuckoo.

We spent the evening birding the agricultural fields around Wurokang. We got great looks at 2 flying Black-bellied Bustards, close-ups of Levaillant’s Cuckoo, and both African and Common Cuckoos. At dusk, we tried for nightjars and sandgrouse along Batteling track but came up empty. These seem to be dry-season specialties.

Day 4. Upcountry to Janjanbureh.
Got nice looks at Black-headed Heron and Dark Chanting Goshawk on the way to Soma. Arriving in Soma, we learned that Ebou intended to take the ferry over to the North Bank Road. Spent half the day waiting for the ferry.

After Farfenni, roadside birding turned up Northern Anteater Chat, Exclamatory Paradise-Whydah, a pair of Red-necked Falcons, and another Pearl-spotted Owlet.

We also stopped at Kauur wetlands, where we were treated to a flock of Collared Pratincoles, and a Sedge Warbler. For people who are looking for Egyptian Plover, this is a good place to look.

Last stop was at Wassu, where we looked unsuccessfully for Carmine Bee-eater and Martial Eagle.

Crossing the ferry to Maccarthy Island, we deposited our luggage at the Baobolong Lodge and then went out at dusk to search for sandgrouse. Nada.

Day 5. We started the day by recrossing the ferry to North Bank Road and returning to Wassu. This time, Carmine Bee-eater was posing nicely on a power line. Other good birds include Brown Snake-Eagle and Striped Kingfisher.

Back over the ferry and east along the South Bank Road, we got great looks at soaring White-backed Vultures and another Long-crested Eagle.

We ended at Bansang Quarry, which in dry season is known for rock buntings but offered nothing unusual at this time of year.

We then proceeded to Kunkilling Forest Park. The habitat here is delightful—great spot for long hours of quiet listening and watching for furtive forest birds. Bonus bird as a couple Adamawa Turtle-Doves calling and posing in the canapy. Bonus bonus was a flyover Wahlberg’s Eagle. Unfortunately, our guide was in a bigger hurry than I was.

After lunch at the lodge. We took a leisurely boat ride on the Gambia River, going downstream. Lots of great birds along the way: Spur-winged Goose, beautiful male African Finfoot, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Oriole Warbler, Swamp Flycatcher, several nice raptors, and multiple kingfishers.

Day 6. Back to Banjul Airport.
We made a morning stop at Jahali Rice Fields. Great looks at a Gabar Goshawk. No sign of Black Coucal.

Along the South Bank Road, we made a couple productive stops for European Bee-eater, Veillot’s Barbet, and African Hawk-Eagle. Then back to the airport and the long flight home.

2 nights at Sand Beach Holiday Resort
1 night at Tendaba Camp
2 nights at Baobolong Lodge

Our guide paid for all lodging so we have no idea of prices. My sense is that we were staying in the more economical options available.
My wife and I have traveled extensively in West Africa so we are well accustomed to lodging that features no electricity, bucket baths, and composting toilets. By our standards, the lodging on this trip was fine. Every place included:
• Good screens and/or mosquito nets
• Air conditioning and/or ceiling fans
• Comfortable, clean beds that did not smell of mildew
• Electricity (most of the time)
• Running water (most of the time)

Sand Beach seemed like it was just starting to gear up for the tourist season with a new staff. Staff had to confer with the owner to give us a WiFi password. We had to ask for towels. The bar was not even stocked with beer, much less spirits. We talked to the owner about getting coffee at 6:30. The first morning, that worked wonderfully, but the second morning, no one showed up at the kitchen until 7:10 and then they couldn’t light the propane stove. Coffee and breakfast were eventually served at 7:25. Conditions during peak season may be very different.

We only had WiFi on the Banjul peninsula. We didn’t try to access services like ATMs upcountry so we can’t say how available they are. In general, the tourist infrastructure seems well developed on the peninsula and rather more rudimentary upcountry.

Tendaba Camp was weird. On the one hand, there was plenty of new construction and a bunch of local government officials were meeting there for a conference, all giving the impression of an up-and-coming lodge. On the other hand, all the older facilities were in deep disrepair and the grounds were full of junk and trash, as if the place is in a big downward spiral. The generator cut off in the middle of the night and our ceiling fan with it, leaving us sweating under our mosquito nets. Our room was being systematically dismantled by termites but they left us alone. Food was inoffensive and the beer was cold. What’s not to like?

Baobolong Lodge was fine. The staff were the most professional we encountered on the trip and it was the only lodge where we ran into any significant number of other tourists. Water pressure in the room was sketchy but we coped with bucket showers. The food was the best we ate on the trip and the beer was cold. What’s not to like?

Our Guide
Our guide was Ebou Barry, ([email protected], Bird Tours Gambia, http://www.birdtoursgambia.com/, +2207161202). Being a human being, Ebou has his good points and not-so-good points.

First the good points. Ebou is a fantastic birder—one of the best I’ve had the privilege of birding with. His bird spotting skills are acute and his bird ID skills, both visually and by ear, are remarkable. We hired him specifically for his birding skills. We first met him in eastern Senegal in 2017 when we were touring with a Senegalese guide and Ebou was leading a couple British clients. Within 5 minutes, it was clear that Ebou could bird circles around our Senegalese guide. Ebou has an amazing talent for spotting distant birds in tree tops while careening down the road at 120 km per hour (but see below!).

But then there’s the driving, the planning, and the inter-personal skills. Whatever you do, DO NOT GET IN THE VEHICLE IF EBOU OR HIS DRIVER IS BEHIND THE WHEEL! Hire your own car and driver. The car will need to be high clearance, 4WD, of course. Find a driver who focuses on the road and is committed to safety.

If you’re visiting the Gambia for the first time, you may get the impression that there are no rules, everyone drives recklessly, and Ebou’s driving habits are normal. This is not true! I have lived for several years in West Africa, my wife and I have traveled extensively here, and we have driven ourselves around Senegal on multiple occasions, including the congested streets of Dakar and Kaolack. The driving norms may be different from Europe and North America but there are norms nonetheless. If you understand and respect those norms, it is possible to get around quite safely without constant fear of death and dismemberment.

But Ebou does not follow those norms. His standard method of hazard avoidance is to accelerate, honk his horn, and hope the hazard gets out of the road. It doesn’t help that he focuses more on birding than driving. During our 6 days, we had to swerve wildly to avoid a dog, a horse, several cows, and the backend of another car. Perhaps the most flagrant was the last day on the way to the airport. We had already left the main road and passed the checkpoint. All we had to do was drive up a straight road with no other traffic. The airport was within sight. Easy! We made it but not before almost driving into the ditch to avoid a cow.

As for planning, our actual itinerary had almost no resemblance to the itinerary Ebou had previously proposed. Fortunately, my wife and I came with the attitude that we were along for the ride so wherever Ebou took us would be fine. Also, it was off-season so one could show up at any lodge and expect to get a room (though the government officials booking up the majority of Tendaba Lodge was a surprise.)

The first sign that Ebou was improvising was when we landed and he told us we would be staying at the the Sand Beach Holiday Resort. He had previously told us we would stay at the Sunset Beach Hotel, so that’s the emergency contact information we had shared with friends and family back home. Fortunately, there were no emergencies so it didn’t matter.

On Day 2, Ebou revealed that he planned to take us up country as far as Janjanbureh. In his email, he had indicated no further than Tendaba. Fine, we’re just along for the ride. On Day 4, we traveled from Tendaba Camp to Janjanbureh. When we got to Soma, Ebou turned off for the ferry to Farefenni, much to our surprise. This was an interesting choice because we had previously read horror stories about long waits at ferry crossings. In fact, we had gone out of our way to avoid the ferry crossings, electing to fly from Dakar to Banjul rather than risk the ferry on an overland itinerary. So we weren’t exactly surprised when we arrived to watch the first ferry sail away, then wait for an hour for it to return, load up and sail away without us. We eventually got on the third ferry after waiting half the day. Half a day out of a five day itinerary, that’s 10 percent of our birding time wasted. While waiting, I had plenty of time to recall where we had read about the ferry travails. Wasn’t it another birder’s trip report? Sure enough: Tony and Mary Hopkins, the British birders we had met in Nikolo Koba (See http://www.surfbirds.com/trip_report.php?id=2762.) Their guide? Ebou Barry. The good news is that a bridge is under construction here so eventually the ferry will cease to be a bottleneck.

It became clear that Ebou was intent on visiting a few spots along the North Bank Road for key specialties. But it also became clear that the North Bank Road was more accessible from the east by taking the ferry from Janjanbureh. That crossing is low-traffic and relatively speedy. Bottom line: Ebou’s lack of planning cost us a big chunk of our birding time.
Finally, there are the inter-personal skills and the lack thereof. Two examples illustrate this concern. The first was when we crossed the Janjanbureh ferry the first time and Ebou picked a fight with the ferry operator. The argument unfolded in Mandinke so our understanding of the conflict derived from Ebou’s angry account afterwards. Even his version of events made it clear that he was blatantly in the wrong. Nevertheless, he went on and on about how he would have murdered the ferryman if this had been England or the US. This line of conversation didn’t do much to reassure us that we were traveling with a professional guide who would keep himself and us out of trouble.

The second example is the disconnect between Ebou’s birding priorities and my own. In many ways, Ebou was attentive to our needs but he didn’t show much interest in understanding my birding priorities. His agenda was to (1) tally as many Gambian birds as possible, and (2) log the charismatic species that I could name drop in a trip report to help him land more clients. Meanwhile, my priorities were (1) add to my life list; (2) improve my African bird ID skills; (3) get some good photos; and (4) compile a nice Gambia list. Usually these priorities aligned but sometimes they clashed. So we spent hours studying shorebirds that I already knew well and chased blog birds like Egyptian Plover that I already knew. Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, we didn’t even try for birds like Brown-headed Parrot. Fortunately, my wife and I came with the attitude that we were along for the ride. We started with that attitude and we ended with it and that made all the difference.
Ha ha , reminds me of our day out with him a few years ago ! Could go on about a number of incidents during the day but one in particular , when we stopped for lunch and he had 2 beers ( as the driver ) is sufficient to explain why I wouldn't ever consider using his services again. There are plenty of other guides available.
Ferries can be a nightmare.

We queued for an hour without moving, in the dark on the way 'up river', only to be told the ferry had broken down. Our driver and guide, had an idea for another crossing point and aimed to beat all the other drivers there by driving at lunatic speed. As we made our way, driver and guide began arguing about something which caused the driver to forget that we had a T junction coming up, we missed the junction and ended up, head first in to the ditch.

I flew from the back seat, neatly bisected the front seats and put the windscreen out with the top of my head. My leg was badly hurt but we were fairly close to a superb, bush hospital, funded by Taiwan and staffed by Cuban doctors. As I waited in a wheelchair, I heard an African Scops calling in the hospital grounds and managed to hobble, to the disbelief of the staff, to the tree in which it sat and duly saw the bird.

Our up river trip was cancelled and I had a painful next day, hobbling around Bansang quarry.
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I was carted off to the police station in Farefenni for the heinous crime of accidentally taking a photograph of a policeman. As our car was driven in to town we drove past a huge queue of stationary wagons all waiting for the ferry. Sitting in the back seat I decided to take a scenic photo for my trip report but as we drifted slowly past a policeman standing by the side of the road I just happened to press the shutter button.He immediately blew his whistle and shouted us to stop and ordered me out of the car . The camera was taken off me and I was told to wait in the police station while he disappeared off before eventually coming back and demanding to see what was on the camera which unfortunately had a photo of him on one shot! After showing him all the other photos, most of which were of Anfield from a recent match I'd been to, and deleting him and bigging up his role in the police and agreeing the need for anonymity in his role I was allowed to go.I got my camera back too which I thought I'd probably lose. Happy days!
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