Thanks to the efforts of marketing fuds like our good selves, you’d be forgiven for thinking the dominating feature of The Gambia is its plentiful beaches. It isnt. Not by a long chalk. People aside, the pulsing heart of The Gambia is its mighty river. It is the river which provides food and sustenance, the river that provides the fertile lands that ensure Gambians will never grow hungry, and it’s the river – labyrinthine and endlessly divergent – which makes The Gambia many times the size it appears on maps. There are worlds in these tributaries.
Thus it was that we found ourselves once more in the morning murk, boarding a creaking vessel sailing for the open ocean… The rumour of the day’s heat was already upon us as we departed on our two-tier craft, and though it was way before breakfast, Sandwich Terns and even a Yellow-billed Kite were abroad, speculating, seeking out hunting grounds. Sunrise is an odd thing in The Gambia, at least compared to what I’m used to in Northern Europe. There is none of the soft blues and roses, followed by the advent of sharp light; instead, as the sun rises, the sky takes on a beige, grainy quality, and the sun takes the eyes, muffled, like a muted glowing coin. As we chugged along a now widening tributaries, various herons and egrets flew across in glorious silhouettes.
As we made lazy progress along the river, we could hear the soft clicks of the freshwater oysters that clung to the exposed roots of the mangrove reefs. These are superabundant in this part of the river and are regularly harvested by women who sidle up to the root systems at low tide in brightly painted skiffs. We began to see Pink-backed Pelicans – in ones and twos and more – and as we came closer to open water, Caspian Terns became boatside companions. All along the exposed mudflats were basking crabs and gangs of whimbrel, filling the air with their soft babbling song. Occasionally these would take flight, and peep their three-note call as if in mild annoyance at being disturbed. As breakfast was served (immense tubes of bread filled with fresh-cooked bacon and egg) we saw Common Greenshank, and a single Ruddy Turnstone.
Post-breakfast is something of a haze as we retired to the roof and became a little sun-drunk and lazy. In truth the intense heat was keeping much of the bird life away – sensibly they sought shade, preferring to hunt later in the day. Two surprises did present themselves however: an Arctic Skua and a Cape Gull, a relatively new species to the Senegambia region and quite a find, especially for Chris and Malick, who of course live for this stuff. The pilot must have been in awe as well, as we somehow got ourselves stuck atop a rogue sandbar. No matter, one of the breakfast chefs merely lowered himself overboard and after a deal of levering with a wooden pole we were safely on our way once more.
Once we were afloat again, we approached a bulky mudflat that was home to a few Eurasian Oystercatchers escaping the dread of winter, and a solitary African Spoonbill. A European Storm-Petrel was also spotted, skimming low across the water. It was here that we also came face to face with a large Yellow-billed Stork, picking through the mudflats for shellfish. It was quite a sight in repose, but in flight it was something else, impossibly scissored against the blue of the sky.
It was here, on our turn for home that we also finally saw a raptor – a beautiful Osprey. Simon King had been in Senegal in recent weeks looking for Scottish Ospreys that are known to travel to West Africa for the winter months. Part of reason for the richness of The Gambia’s bird life is that on top of the country’s own perfect climate for so many species is that it’s also in the migration zone – both for birds looking to overwinter, and those who are stopping off, before continuing their treks south, south to yet warmer climes… It was hard not to wonder if this bird might soon be seen high in the Douglas Firs surrounding Loch Lomond. As we approached the rickety port of Denton Bridge, we saw many Little Swifts, hoovering up flies above the surface of the water, and the by now ubiquitous mobs of Hooded Vultures.
That evening was all about, initially at least, setting eyes on the Painted Snipe. We headed back down to the rice paddies behind Badala Park, and with new information that there was a male with three chicks somewhere in the vicinity we waited whilst Malick and Chris stalked like brave tigers… That mention of the ‘male with three chicks’ isn’t a typo – the Painted Snipe is one of a few species where the male and female swap roles, so the fella is at home with the nippers whilst the female is out creating merry hell. It’s also true that against convention, the female is the more brightly coloured of the pair (in almost all cases it is the male who bears the burden of attraction).
It should be mentioned here just how elusive the Painted Snipe is – this is one tough bird to see. You could step over one and not notice it beneath you. So all credit to Malick that he eventually spotted the male, and managed to ‘flush it’ so most of us could get a look at the sainted beast. I don’t mind admitting that to me it was little more than a mildly attractive brown-to-grey wader, but this is an important bird to many and there was a good deal of buzz once we’d seen the creature. Imagine if we’d seen a female!
After finally finding our quarry, an evening on Fajara Golf Course was going to be a breeze. We were immediately assailed by a beautiful Abyssinian Roller (a quite beautiful bird that utterly failed to impress Chris who thought it something of a tart and awarded it a paltry 3.4 out of 10), and a glamourous, if raucous, band of Ring-necked Parakeets. We also saw numerous Wood Hoopoes, nesting in the swaying palms, and a sweet Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, hiding in an Acacia tree. Then came the grand finale. Malick has a habit of making owlet calls when he thinks he might be in the right place to spot one. Well on this occasion he got an immediate response. You might think that from there it’d be easy to seek out the call and observe the owl in situ, but you’d be wrong. Aside from the skill of mimicry, the greater part of the talent of spotting is being able to locate the call, and in the case of the Pearl-spotted Owlet, seeing the damn thing at all. It’s tiny – not much bigger than say, a large hand. But let it be said – once Malick had indulged his near preternatural ability to locate the smallest of foes, this wee beastie is a tiny and utterly captivating one. Stood there in the soft evening light, all taking it in turns to zero in through the various scopes that had been trained on the owlet, one had to wonder at the nature of all this: the effortless beauty, the abundance of life and how much of it we miss with our blundering clatter through the world, and yes, a little of the absurdity of being on the other side of the world, staring through a magnifying lens at something of quite such perfect proportions.
A big thanks to Dave Allen for letting me have access to his superbly detailed bird diary for this day.