Chris Murphy travelled with The Gambia Experience at the end of last year, and here he describes his birdwatching experience, providing some useful tips for fellow birding enthusiasts...
"In December 2017, I spent three weeks in The Gambia on a holiday organised through The Gambia Experience. Although I have visited The Gambia many times, it is only the past three years or so that I have become interested in the birdlife there. With well over 500 species of bird that have been spotted in The Gambia, it is an ideal venture for those just starting out in birdwatching, as well as the more experienced enthusiast. For the beginner, there are species that are very common around the resort areas such as the Pied Crow, Yellow Billed Kite, doves as well as the various gulls, terns, and whimbrels etc that can be seen whilst walking along the beach. For the more experienced birder, areas such as the Pirang Forest offer the opportunity to see some of the rarer species and for those who are really keen, a trip inland up river will reveal a wealth of birds not common around the coast.
I selected to stay at the African Village and Bakotu hotels and also at Mandina Lodges for three nights. These venues were selected for their proximity to areas where many birds can be seen without having to take transport to the more remote places. African Village in Bakau is close to the Botanical Gardens, which attracts species such as hornbills and Long-tailed Glossy Starlings and a short walk down the road brings you to Cape Point.
Above: African Village
Above: Bakotu Hotel
At Cape Point, you will find the Calypso Bar and the “Crocodile Pool” (not to be confused with the sacred crocodile pool at Kachikally). Regular avian residents at the Calypso Bar pool are Pied Kingfishers, various herons, plovers and Black Crakes and during my stay a couple of hammerkops were regular visitors. For those interested in other forms of wildlife, the Calypso Bar is also good for monitor lizards, butterflies and of course the crocodiles. Don’t be put off by the crocs and monitor lizards, they stay well away from the human visitors. Being next to the beach, birds such as gulls and terns can be easily spotted. A short walk around the roads at the back of the Calypso Bar between Cape Point and the Old Cape Road, will reveal a wealth of species such as warblers, sunbirds, weavers, piapacs and firefinches. Going a bit further down the Old Cape Road brings you to Cape Creek, which as well as gulls and terns, attracts whimbrels, Common Greenshanks, redshanks, plovers and pelicans, along with other aquatic species.
Above: Reef Heron
Above: Crocodile at Calypso
The Mandina Lodges are sited in Makasutu Forest and are a paradise for birdwatchers. Each guest is assigned a local guide who will take you on walks through the forest and paddle you along the bolong. The birdlife here is immense and varied. The usual birds associated with aquatic areas such as herons, plovers, redshanks, greenshanks and sandpipers are all here. Giant, Pied, and Malachite Kingfishers are common along the bolong and a forest walk is likely to produce sightings of birds such as Green and Violet Turacos, many species of sunbirds, weavers, and waxbills. I was fortunate enough to see a Long Crested Eagle during my stay. Unfortunately it was too far away to be able to get a decent photograph. As well as the birdlife, Makasutu Forest is rich in other wildlife such as green vervet monkeys, baboons, and monitor lizards.
Above: Pied Kingfisher
Above: Baboon at Mandina
Bakotu Hotel at Kotu is a popular venue for birders – including Chris Packham, and has its own nature trail and viewing platform at the back of the hotel. It is situated near to the Kotu Stream and the platform overlooks the creek which is rich in birdlife and other wildlife. A short walk around the corner will bring you to the bridge over the Kotu Stream. From here a nature walk can be enjoyed along the banks of the stream and towards the Fajara Golf Club. Next to the Kotu Stream nature walk is the local sewage farm, which is also rich in birdlife and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Don’t worry it’s not like a conventional sewage farm and not at all smelly!
Above: Viewing platform at Bakotu
Above: Kotu Stream
From Kotu, it is possible to walk along the beach to Kololi and the Senegambia Hotel. The walk along the beach will involve wading through the Kotu Stream, and a short stop to see if there are any interesting birds around in the mouth of the stream is well worthwhile. The walk along the beach will result in sightings of gulls and terns, while Yellow Billed Kites and Hooded Vultures are also common. As you approach the Senegambia Hotel, there are a couple of streams at the back of the beach that are well worth stopping to look at to see if there’s anything of interest there. Herons and Pied Kingfishers are common.
Above: Vulture at Senegambia
Having arrived at The Senegambia Hotel, the gardens there host many species of bird. On my last trip I spotted Red Billed Hornbills, Long Tailed Glossy Starlings, Cattle Egrets, Bearded Barbets, Yellow Crowned Goneleks, Hoopoe, Snowy Capped Robin Chat and Bronze Tailed Glossy Starlings, amongst others. Almost impossible to miss at The Senegambia are the Hooded Vultures that turn up to be fed on a daily basis. These usually hang around for a bit after feeding so a visit between say 11:00am and 1:00pm will result in a large number still being present.
Above: Red Hornbill
Above: Yellow Crowned Gonelek
Above: Green vervet monkeys at Senegambia
It’s worth keeping your eyes open on the roads as well. Many of the roads have power cables running along them and these provide useful perches. In the area around Bakau and Cape Point for example I have seen hornbills, Long Tailed Glossy Starlings, Abyssinian Rollers, bulbuls, finches, vultures and many other species all taking a rest on a convenient power line cable.
Above: Abyssinian Roller
The ‘Wake Up With The Birds’ trip that is operated from most of the hotels, and can be booked in resort through The Gambia Experience reps, is well worth going on – especially if you’re new to birdwatching. You’ll be picked up from your hotel at about 6:00am and driven to Lamin Lodge which is situated on a tributary of the River Gambia. After tea/coffee you will be taken on a boat trip along the creek whilst the sun rises. Many species of birds can be seen and these are pointed out by the local guides. After a couple of hours you will arrive back at Lamin Lodge for breakfast before walking around the rice fields that surround the lodge.
Above: Lamin Lodge
The Gambia Experience can organise half or full day birdwatching trips with local expert Malik Suso. I took the opportunity to go out on a full day with Malik and his apprentice Tuli. I was picked up from Bakotu Hotel at around 7:00am, and along with two other birders, was driven to the Farasutu Forest where we spent several hours wandering around the local area before stopping for lunch. After lunch, we walked around the forest area before driving to the Pirang Forest for more birdwatching. We returned to our hotels at around 6:00pm. Throughout the day we saw just under 100 species, including several species of owl that would have been almost impossible to spot without Malik’s expert eyes. Tuli also acted as secretary and kept a list of the species that we’d seen.
Above: Malik, Chris Packham and birdwatching holidaymakers
In the resorts such as Kotu and Cape Point the local bird guides can be useful, BUT make sure that you find someone knowledgeable. Try and ask a few questions so that you can assess their level of knowledge and agree a price upfront for however long you want to walk for. Many of the guides are also willing to accompany you to the more remote places too.
Chris' top tips for birdwatchers:
1. Take a decent pair of binoculars or spotting scope.
2. Get a copy of The Birds of Senegal and The Gambia By Borrow & Demey (or similar) a few months before you travel and read up on the more common species.
3. Don’t think that you have to go to remote places to see the birds. As already mentioned, many species can be spotted in and around the hotels. These are usually used to humans being around, so with a bit of care you can get quite close for some decent photos.
4. Unless very experienced and/or you have made other arrangements, use the services of the local bird guides. These can be found at the Kotu Stream and outside the Calypso Bar. Make sure that you get a knowledgeable guide. Try asking a few questions such as what is the difference between a Beautiful Sunbird and a Splendid Sunbird. This is where a bit of prior homework with a bird book will pay dividends. Try and get one who is a member of The Gambian Bird Guides Association.
5. If you’re going to spend a few hours trekking through the forest or savannah, make sure that you take plenty of water to drink with you.
6. For photography, a telephoto lens of at least 300mm is advisable.
7. Don’t think that you will see every species in one trip. I know of people who have spent years trying to spot an elusive species. It should however be possible to see 200 or more during a two-week holiday – especially with the help of an experienced guide.
8. If you’re new to birdwatching, try one of the organised trips such as ‘Wake Up With The Birds’ to Lamin Lodge, or a trip to Makasutu Forest. These will include both transport and the services of an experienced guide.
9. Keep a checklist of what you’ve seen and update each time you visit The Gambia.
Above: Monitor lizard
Are you interested in booking a birdwatching trip to The Gambia? You can discover specific birdwatching holidays here, or alternatively explore our holiday deals, so you can do the odd bit of birdwatching during your Gambia holiday.
Wildlife imagery credited to Chris Murphy.