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 some relict gallery forest patches. Here we’ll encounter bird families endemic to the continent alongside more familiar European migrants. We’ll also spend three nights up-river to look for a variety of different species, including 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 we’ll have 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 and Giant Kingfishers, Little Bee-eater, Piapiac, Wire-tailed Swallow, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, and maybe even Oriole Warbler. Night near Banjul.
Days 2-3: We’ll spend our first few days birding close to our hotel. A remnant patch of gallery forest at Pirang is a great site for Green and Violet Turacos, Yellowbill, Green Crombec, Green Hylia and Little Greenbul. The woodland here can be very productive, and we’ll spend the morning looking for Buff-spotted Woodpecker, 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. It’s also the only site for the highly-skulking White-spotted Flufftail, but with patience and luck we may be able to coax one into the open. Owls are also a distinct possibility here, with the huge Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and the rather more diminutive Northern White-faced Owl both present. 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.
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 Black-shouldered Kites regularly float overhead and Ospreys transport their catch of the day torpedo-like to a favoured perch. Down on the beach the flocks of gulls and terns should contain a hulking Kelp Gull or two among the Grey-headed Gulls, or an equally impressive Caspian Tern dwarfing the Royal and Sandwich Terns.
Nearby Brufut, Tujering and Yundum each have a different selection of species. 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, African Harrier-Hawk, or maybe a sleek Grey Kestrel or a dashing Red-necked Falcon. Several sites now host dedicated drinking pools for birds which can be incredibly rewarding in the heat of the day. Every ‘water bar’ is different, but hordes of Black-rumped Waxbills can be present, along with Yellow-fronted Canary, Cut-throat Finch, and Greater Blue-eared and Bronze-tailed Glossy Starlings, as well as scarcities such as Spotted Honeyguide and Green-headed Sunbird. Nights near Banjul.
Day 4: We’ll have an early start as we cross the mighty Gambia River from Banjul to Barra on one of the first ferries of the day. From here we’ll drive east and explore the open savannah of the north bank, marvelling at the marked differences in the bird life that are immediately apparent. We should soon be seeing our first White-rumped Seedeaters, Northern Anteater Chats, Mottled Spinetails and maybe even Chestnut-bellied Starlings. The north bank is brilliant for raptors including African White-backed and Rüppell’s Vultures, Grasshopper Buzzard and 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. In contrast to the Banjul area, Abyssinian Roller is the most common representative of the family and we might even chance upon a Four-banded Sandgrouse, Northern Carmine Bee-eater or Yellow-billed Oxpecker. Small scattered pools can act like magnets to passerines and one such pool often provides us with great views of Gosling’s Bunting, Yellow-fronted Canary and Bush Petronia. Arriving at our new and well-appointed camp, we shall explore the surrounding area for species such as Savile’s Bustard, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill and Black-crowned Crane. Night at Morgan Kunda camp.
Day 5: We’ll have a full day to explore this exciting area. Our main target will be one of Africa’s most iconic birds, the incomparable Egyptian Plover. Not a plover and not found in Egypt it is, nonetheless, one of the most elegant and striking denizens of the Sahelian rivers. A small wetland holds a couple of pairs of these, and other possibilities here include Black-headed Lapwing, the flamboyant Sahel Paradise Whydah, various weavers, Pygmy Sunbird, Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark, Rufous-chested and the west african race of Red-rumped Swallows. Overhead, raptors should be much in evidence with Brown and Beaudoin’s Snake Eagles competing for the skies with Dark Chanting Goshawk, Wahlberg’s and Long-crested Eagles, and there is always the possibility of the huge Martial Eagle. Night at Morgan Kunda camp.
Day 6: We’ll take to the water using a boat to explore the secluded creeks of the Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve 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 along with several species of dove, including African Mourning, Red-eyed, Laughing and Vinaceous Doves. We’ll finish our boat trip by crossing the Gambia river and docking at the famous Tendaba Camp, where we’ll arrive in 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’s dark, African Scops Owl and Spotted Thick-knee, while Long-tailed and Standard-winged Nightjar are also possible. Night at Tendaba Camp.
Day 7: After a leisurely breakfast we’ll start our bumpy journey back towards the coast, stopping en route for new birds which could include African Hawk Eagle, the poorly-named Brown-rumped Bunting, Black-winged Red Bishop, Yellow Penduline Tit 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 8: Our final day should allow us some time for birding in the morning, so we’ll target any local species that may have eluded us so far, perhaps visiting Pirang forest again, or the bush country at Brufut. We’ll then head back to the hotel to freshen up and check out, have lunch while looking out over the Atlantic, and then head to the airport where the tour concludes.
Updated: 14 February 2019