What follows is a 3-part account of the Chris Packham Gambia bird tour, that ran from 5th-8th Feb of this year (some of the party continued on for three more days at Makasutu, I escaped to Senegal). Needless to say it was a cracking few days, and for so many reasons: for the sheer number of different bird species we saw (147 at the last count); for enabling us to see so many different, odd corners of The Gambia; for getting to know a bunch of cool people; and, of course, getting to (figuratively) stand on the shoulders of two people with such a depth of knowledge of the Gambian bird life, and wildlife in general. Though they might not get mentioned that much, Chris and Malick are implicit in everything that happened, and everything I learned. I just wish someone had told me the birds got up so damn early…
6.30am found us huddled beneath a huge mahogany tree, squinting into the milky light of pre-dawn. We were at the entrance to the Abuko nature reserve, a vast tract of forest and open scrub and home to a renowned natural pool, excellent for spotting a good number of species. The night before the group of 18 had had a brief meeting with Chris at Bakotu where we’d sized one another up and been introduced to the inimitable Malick – prince of bird watchers and, as it turned out, a purveyor of heroic local knowledge. Thus it was that this straggly party entered the reserve, heavy with binoculars, heavy with anticipation.
The first thing we see is a dense line of nomadic ants, clustered into a fibrous cylinder across the pathway. They group together in this fashion to keep themselves warm, and to protect their queen, who is safe somewhere in the centre of the gathering. At first glance the ragged pile looks like leaf or vegetable matter, or even hair – which I guess is the point. The ants reportedly have a fearsome bite, so we leave well alone and continue along the path to the pool.
Along the route we stop in our own ragged cluster to seek out a violet turaco, hiding somewhere in the canopy. The thickening air is pierced occasionally by the bird’s gutteral call, and as it hops from branch to liana we try to fix on its movements. The profusion of growth around us is extraordinary – the sheer abundance of life, the riot of things, filling every available space. The canopy is one thing, but it’s down here at eye level and beneath that’s the most boggling: a labyrinth of entwined lianas and branches with huge buttressed hardwood trees rising from the meshed swarm of roots. There are breaks in this debauch of life, pockets of colder air where the massive concrete bunkers of termite mounds stand like centuries old sentinels. Yet even these conceal a frenzy of hyperactivity, worker termites at the coalface, keeping the place cool enough for her – lying at the refrigerated heart of things, sometimes up to 50 years old…
The pool when we get there, is quite a prospect – compact and surrounded on three sides by lush greenery; and perfect for watching birds – partly because of the natural stage set up, and partly thanks to the presence of a rickety two-storey hide from where you can observe the higher reaches of the distant palms. And so many birds, and so quickly… We see egrets, night herons, hornbills, wood hoopoes with young in the palms, a spectacular chestnut-breasted giant kingfisher (perched they are something, but in flight, oh my) barbets, a hammerkop, jacanas picking their way across the massive lily pads, just feet away from us, plus a dozen or so african darters, distant relatives of the cormorant, wings outstretched in the early morning sun. It’s an amazing sight, and so much to take in that you have to turn away occasionally to get some perspective. The group are scrabbling for their guide books (this extraordinary bible) (as an aside here, if Dave Allen ever offers you his guidebook, say no, probably best not to ask why – it’s to do with where he keeps it.), training their scopes or zoom lenses, off to my right someone is sketching the whole dazzling enterprise.
We do eventually tear ourselves away, and spend the next half hour or so on a weary walk to the rescue centre at the heart of Abuko. It’s HOT now, getting towards 35 degrees, and the heat lays across everything, puddling around your feet if you stand still for too long. We spot bee eaters in the tops of acacia trees, and the distant song of the bulbul, the only bird daft enough to still be active in this heat. We arrive at the rescue centre blistered and parched, to find an oasis selling cold drinks and small tubs of nuts to feed the resident vervet monkeys. Chris seems particularly adept at befriending them, getting a couple to leap for nuts held in an outstretched hand. The animals here are kept in good conditions, and there’s a true menagerie, ranging from red patas monkeys, through hyenas to a MASSIVE tortoise, that had dug herself an impressively deep hole to escape the heat. Something we could all have done with. Alas, we instead had to walk through the heat of the day back to the bus, air which seemed to congeal around us like a broiling active barrier. The stall holders at the entrance, when we finally arrived, seemed to regard us with sympathy and desultorily waved the odd carved owl at us and then, mercifully, left us alone.
That evening we went for the first of several walks across the fields that surround the Kotu stream. The area is legendary for the diversity of the bird life it supports, from a raft of kingfishers, to waders and even – on the more distant sewage ponds – a healthy number of whistling ducks. It is said (by Chris amongst others) that if you gave yourself a good run at it (say dawn till dusk) you might get to see 100 species from the bridge above the stream. One day, one day…
As we wound our way on the narrow paths that lace the fields around the stream, as well as looking at the numerous wood hoopoes and glossy starlings that graced the palms around us, and looking skywards for the kites and hooded vultures that rode the rolling levels, the first obstacle we had to negotiate was a herd of cows that very much wanted to get past us. Or rather we were the obstacle they had to tackle. As five became 10 became 40 or more, it was clear that this was no small herd either – mildly panicked laughter soon became shrieking alarm as the huge-horned beasts strove to get round us by any means possible. There was no malice, but that’s a ton of animal. With big bloody horns! Thankfully we managed to let them by without much more than the odd blush and booty from stepping into the sunken rice pits.
The sewage ponds, when we arrived were alive with activity. Now this may sound like a disgusting place to be spotting birds, but remarkably there is no evidence of sewage at all (save the odd brightly painted sewage truck), and the insect life is of such a density that it’s a natural spot for birds to congregate. There were squadrons of swifts flying low over the ponds, peeping patrols of stilts, plus massed ranks of creeping cattle egrets. I shall never think of sewage farms in quite the same way after seeing this fount of life.
Our final assignation was with the elusive painted snipe, a bird I was reliably informed was a ‘lifer’, the kind a true birder dreams of spotting. We’d crossed the road by now, and were on a ridge between the flats behind the Badala Park hotel. Malick had gone ahead to see if he could hear the muted call of the snipe, or spot its legendarily skulky lope as it picked for insects and grubs in the hard tufts of grass. See, the painted snipe, despite it’s name, isn’t exactly a colourful beastie, and has the perfect markings for hiding amidst grass and burnt soil; and it simply doesn’t want to be seen. So there we are, once again in our traditional (and by now exhausted) shabby column, all peeking through tired eyes, looking for a creature that has no wish to be spotted. Ocassionaly a faint cry of ‘there!’ would go up, only for the damp disappointed follow up of ‘no, it’s a coucal. Again’ to filter out. Malick was knee deep in grass by now, straining eyes and ears for the evasive wee creature but to no avail. We called off the search, promising to return another day, better armed and less exhausted.