Yellow-crowned Gonolek may be one of the first Gambian birds we see. Photo: James Lidster
Tucked away on the tropical west coast of Africa is the tiny country of Gambia. Despite its small size – just over 190 miles long and little more than 30 wide – Gambia has become a favoured haunt for birdwatchers from all over the world. This is because the facilities developed to allow holidaymakers to escape the winter gloom of Europe also give birdwatchers access to some superb habitats, most within a day’s journey of our comfortable coastal hotel.
These include sandy beaches, coastal lagoons, mangroves, dry forest and most productive of all, Abuko Nature Reserve. Here we’ll encounter bird families endemic to the continent alongside more familiar European migrants. We’ll also spend two nights up-river to look for Egyptian Plover. Whether you are looking for an introduction to birding in Africa, or just somewhere warm to spend a relaxed, bird-filled week, the Gambia is the perfect destination.
Day 1: The tour starts with a flight from London to Banjul from where we’ll transfer to our hotel on the Atlantic coast. If time allows there will be chance for some birding before reaching our hotel. Kotu Creek is a great place to get to know some of the commoner birds and we should see Long-tailed Cormorant, Western Reef Heron, Senegal Thick-knee, Spur-winged and Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Pied Kingfisher, Little Bee-eater, Wire-tailed Swallow, Yellow-crowned Gonolek and maybe even Oriole Warbler. Night near Banjul.
Days 2-3: We’ll spend our first couple of days birding close to our hotel. At Abuko Reserve well-marked paths lead through dense areas of forest to small pools where Hamerkop, Black-headed Heron, and Giant Kingfisher are all possible. The woodland here can be very productive and we’ll spend the morning looking for Buff-spotted Woodpecker, both Violet and Green Turacos, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Common Wattle-eye, Little Greenbul, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Blackcap and Brown Babblers, African Thrush, Collared Sunbird and Western Bluebill.
A visit to the coastal savannah at Tanji is a must on any itinerary. This should produce Vieillot’s and Bearded Barbets, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Black-crowned Tchagra, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Variable Sunbird and Oriole Warbler, while Ospreys and Black-shouldered Kites regularly float overhead. Down on the beach the flocks of gulls and terns should contain a powerful Kelp Gull or two among the Grey-headed Gulls, or an equally impressive Caspian Tern dwarfing nearby Royal and Sandwich Terns.
Nearby Brufut, Tujering and Yundum each have a different selection of species again. The open habitat here is ideal for striking Blue-bellied, Rufous-crowned and Abyssinian Rollers as well as small parties of Blue-cheeked, Little and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters. Careful checking of the swallow flocks should reveal Wire-tailed and Pied-winged Swallows while woodland clearings are the favoured haunt of Fanti Saw-wing. Raptors will be in evidence throughout the tour and during these first few days we hope to see Lizard Buzzard, Dark Chanting Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk, or maybe a sleek Grey Kestrel or dashing Red-necked Falcon. Nights near Banjul.
Day 4: Today is essentially a bird-filled travelling day, and we leave our hotel early to ensure we catch one of the first ferries of the morning. Once on the north bank we head east, soon seeing our first Northern Anteater Chats, Mottled Spinetails and maybe even Chestnut-bellied Starling. The open savannah of the north bank is brilliant for raptors including African White-backed and Rüppell’s Vultures, Grasshopper Buzzard or Lanner Falcon. Passing through wetlands and marshes we should see Pink-backed and Great White Pelicans, Black Heron, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns, White-breasted Cormorant, Collared Pratincole, Ruff and White-faced Whistling Ducks. After a quick lunch we’ll search for Saville’s Bustard, never guaranteed but hearing their strange song in the intense African heat adds to the excitement. Abyssinian Roller is the most common representative of the family and we might even chance upon a Northern Carmine Bee-eater or Yellow-billed Oxpecker. Before catching a ferry back to the south bank of the river we’ll explore yet another wetland, famous for being the best site for Egyptian Plover in the country. This species is never common but we hope to see several of this exquisite wader. Small scattered pools can act like magnets to passerines and one such pool often provides us with great views of Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Yellow-fronted Canary and Bush Petronia. Depending on ferry times we will arrive at our accommodation in time for a late dinner. Night at Tendaba Camp.
Day 5: Today we take to the water using a boat to explore secluded creeks where, drifting quietly among the mangroves, we may chance upon the much-desired African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron or African Blue Flycatcher. These species all require a great deal of luck but there will be plenty of other birds to enjoy while we search. Maybe a stately African Fish Eagle sitting on an exposed branch, or groups of African Darters drying their wings and a selection of herons from Western Reef to Squacco and from the small Striated to the aptly named Goliath. Another speciality of the mangroves is the Mouse-brown Sunbird, a rather drab species, especially compared to the Scarlet-chested, Splendid and Pygmy Sunbirds that we should have seen by now. Kingfishers abound, as do Eurasian Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper and Common Greenshank and several species of dove, including African Mourning, Red-eyed, Laughing and Vinaceous Doves.
Returning to the camp we’ll have time for lunch and maybe a siesta before we explore the dry savannah nearby. Specialities in this area include White-shouldered Black Tit, Black Scimitarbill, African Yellow White-eye, Senegal Batis, Brubru and maybe an Abyssinian Ground Hornbill. As the evening approaches we may chance upon Four-banded Sandgrouse and once it is dark African Scops Owl and Spotted Thick-knee and maybe a Long-tailed or Standard-winged Nightjar are also possible. Night at Tendaba Camp.
Day 6: After a leisurely breakfast we’ll start our bumpy journey towards the coast, stopping en route for new birds which could include a massive Martial Eagle or African Hawk Eagle, poorly named Brown-rumped Buntings, Black-winged Red Bishop or a flock of White-crested Helmet Shrikes. If time allows we may visit the Faraba Banta bush track, famed for its raptors and woodland species as well as possibly producing Stone Partridge or a roosting Greyish Eagle Owl. Night near Banjul.
Day 7: Our final full day’s birding will depend on which species we haven’t seen but we usually make a visit to Pirang forest. This is one of the best sites in the country for Green Turaco, Yellowbill, Green Crombec and Green Hylia, as well as more chances for paradise flycatchers, wattle-eyes and Little Greenbul. The nearby shrimp ponds are sadly now off limits to birders, but birding around the perimeter could produce Yellow-billed Stork, Northern Red Bishop, Quail-finch and Crested Lark. Night near Banjul.
Day 8: There will be chance for some final birding close to our hotel in the morning before we catch a flight back to London where the tour ends.
Updated: 29 September 2018