5 November 2007

"An African Hornet" or Birding in the Gambia

Generally I confine these pages to accounts of my birding in Warwickshire - indeed generally within a few miles of my home. If the opportunity arises I may occasionally report on wanderings elsewhere in the UK - perhaps a spot of migration birding in Norfolk, or a special trip to the Farne Islands.

But when the opportunity arose to visit Gambia, with a couple of day's birding included in the trip... well, as you can imagine, I jumped at it. And this is my report.

Gambia is one of the most popular destinations for UK birders looking for a bit of overseas birding. Why? Well, to touch on a few of the principal reasons: it is only five-and-a-half hours away and in the same timezone as Britain, so no jet lag; temperatures are always warm (32C+ during my stay); nearly everyone speaks English and there is a well organised tourist infrastructure; and with more than 550 bird species recorded in this tiny country, it is perfectly possible (apparently) to see 250 of them during a two-week trip.

Sadly of course, I didn't have two weeks - indeed for birding I had only two days (plus a few snatched hours here and there). But even so, I managed to record more than 120 species, and was able to confirm in my own mind what a wonderful country this is.

Our initial plans were in disarray almost as soon as we landed - our local birding expert, an Englishman, turned out to be a bit less useful than hoped - in fact he was in England! However, after a bit of scouting around with other contacts on the ground, I was soon taking a call from Max, a bird guide who said he knew the place we wished to visit first, and would pick us up at 7am the next day. Tujering here we come.

True to his word, Max turned up near first light in his green Mercedes, and tranported us to the woods and savanna of Tujering. Although this area has been sadly deforested since my companion was last here, there was still good birding to be had - particularly as Max turned out to be every bit as good as we hoped. As the morning unfolded he rattled off sighting after sighting - the obvious ones a delight for me, a few rarer numbers for my companion. Even now, some weeks later, I can still feel the excitement as I read through my notes - Blue-bellied Roller (in fact four species of roller), Northern Puffback Shrike, Bearded Barbet, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Levaillaint's Cuckoo, the male Northern Red Bishop and my personal favourite, the White-Crested Helmet Shrike. Some very common, some rarer, but all utterly thrilling.

Two days later I found myself with Max again for the day, and before taking me into the Abuko national park we walked through rice fields opposite - an inspired decision by Max which revealed all sorts of wonders - a Black Egret (umbrella bird), a pair of Pied Kingfishers, and a Little Bee-Eater being my most memorable moments from that short session.

And then into the reserve, which in common with all bird reserves felt a lot of more 'touristy'. That's not to say there wasn't great birding to be had though - a Giant Kingfisher, White-backed Night Heron, White-crowned Robin-Chat, both Green and Violet Turacos, and a Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater soon proved that - and as we left we finished with a Klaas's Cuckoo for good measure.

So.... 120+ species, the most beautiful landscapes(some of the coastal areas are pure paradise), the nicest people I have ever met, the most engaging, involving and absorbing visit I've ever made anywhere - what's not to love? I can't recommend birding in the Gambia enough - go, get away from the obvious tourist traps (and try to put some money into the real local economy if you can), find a good guide and enjoy enjoy enjoy. And since the guide is so important, I'm more than happy to recommend our own guide on these trips, Malang Jammeh or 'Max' as he is generally known. He is an official tourist guide in the Gambia, and has excellent local knowledge. He is also an excellent birder by any standard - how he located a Pearl Spotted Owlet through about half a mile of scrub I'll never know. Contact Max on max6675@hotmail.com or find out more from the Hooked On Gambia website here.

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