Trip Report: The Gambia (January 19-26, 2001)

 

By Tony & Viv Day, Exmouth, Devon   E-mail addresss:   tonyday@exmouth.demon.co.uk

 

There is a selection of our (mostly not bird related) holiday snaps here.                   

 

Species list here.

 

 

Introduction & Strategy:

 

Whenever we can, we like to break up the Winter with a week of sunshine, preferably in a country we haven't visited before.  We were hoping to go to Thailand this year, but in the event had neither the time nor the money, so we had more or less settled on a week in the Canaries - and had researched and liked the look of Gomera.  I then started reading glowing reports on The Gambia - in particular the birding - and we realised that we could do it for about the same price, and only an extra hour and a half on the plane!  On a trip to Slimbridge in early December we found the book "The Birds of Senegal & Gambia", bought it - and then just had to go.  We booked two days later.

 

We are not expert birders, and certainly not twitchers.   Neither are we great beach people - our idea of a good holiday is to see different places, people, and cultures, eat different food, drink plenty of beer, and fit in some gentle walking - during which we would hope to see some different birds.  Apart from a week in Morocco, and a day in Egypt, this would be our first time in Africa, so there would be plenty of new experiences even if we only stayed in the vicinity of the coastal resorts.  We had experienced - and overcome - the culture shock of India on three trips to the sub-continent, and whilst we expected this to be some sort of preparation for Africa, we also expected Africa to be different, so decided not to be over ambitious on our first visit.  We could only get a week away anyway, so therefore did not plan any excursions "up country".

 

In the event the local birding was so wonderful that we found ourselves "at it" every morning - and still did not visit all the local sites.  We liked the Gambia - and the Gambians - a lot, and will no doubt return one day.  When we do we would hope to stay a little longer, and maybe explore a little further.

 

Logistics, costs, accommodation, food, money, climate:

 

(Note: I am assuming potential visitors will have researched the basics - by reading The Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, for instance - and so I will not go into such matters as how to get around, local customs, etc.  I will restrict myself to what it might be useful to others to know about our own experience.)

 

We booked our holiday through The Gambia Experience (Tel. 01703 730888), who we would thoroughly recommend.  They are a specialist company focused solely on The Gambia, yet compete on price with the big boys.  Their brochure and website are attractive and informative, and their staff knowledgeable.  Their resort reps were good fun and, importantly for us, Gambians.  The company offers Friday or Tuesday flights, therefore making stays of 7, 10, 11, or 14 days possible (or longer, of course!).

 

We stayed for one week on a bed & breakfast basis at the Senegambia Beach Hotel in Kololi.  We liked the hotel - very pleasant staff, good restaurants (though we also ate out a lot), and a variety of bars.  The grounds are wonderful for birding, and the hotel has its own resident Birdman (called Maas Chan, if I've spelt it right!). 

 

Don't change money at the Senegambia - their rate is a rip-off (the lads that surround your coach at the airport give as good a rate as you will get!)  Whilst we were there the local change offices (official and otherwise) were all offering 21 dalasis to the pound.  The Senegambia was offering 18!  Warning: if you use plastic - anywhere, it seems - the amount is converted to sterling first, and at a disadvantageous rate.  Sometimes a surcharge is also added.  The same applies when signing for things at the hotel.  Far, far, better to change into dalasi and spend cash always.  When quoting sterling prices I'm rounding to 20 dalasi to the pound.

 

In the immediate vicinity of the hotel are a range of restaurants, bars, minimarkets, change offices and shops, plus a craft market, fruit sellers, and taxi stand.  Meals ranged from about £1.50 for a main dish up to about £10 a head for two courses and wine. (There are two, more expensive, Lebanese restaurants which we didn't try - mainly because they never seemed to have any other customers!)  Beer is from 10 dalasis (50p) for a bottle of the local Julbrew (very drinkable and 4.7%) up to 22 dalasis for the same stuff in the hotel!

 

We particularly liked the Indian restaurant (very good value buffet on Saturday nights) and the Ali Baba bar, which has tables on the street from which you can watch the world go by, and a pleasant garden at the back, with good reggae bands some nights.  For African food, we couldn't better the cheap and cheerful (and slow!) Bano café/restaurant, opposite the (also good) Thai/Vietnamese.  On no account go home without trying the Bano's groundnut soup (makes a good light lunch on its own)!  Service everywhere is at a Greek sort of speed, but cheerful and polite and to good European restaurant standards.

 

The holiday cost £424 per head.

 

The flight was with Monarch Airlines - never our favourite airline as I dislike traveling with my knees under my chin.  I noted they had nothing to say about deep vein thrombosis!  The flight is just under 6 hours.

 

Bird Guides:

 

We were undecided at the outset about whether to use a local bird guide.  We had read mixed reports on the Internet, and thought it would be fun, at least to start with, to try to identify birds on our own.  This we did - in the Senegambia grounds - on arrival and on our first morning - by the end of which we already had 25 lifers out of 27 birds identified.  (My "target" for the week had been a modest 50 lifers - we planned to do things other than birding!)

 

Dembo Sonko:  On the second morning we walked up the beach to the Palma Rima road and then in the vicinity of the Casino cycle track to the beach near Kotu (four lifers from five species).  Sitting for a rest we were approached by a young man sporting bins and a Sheffield RSPB badge.  He having sexed a pied kingfisher from a distance, and identified a couple of other passing birds, we felt he probably knew his stuff, and decided to give him a try.  We asked how much for two to three hours on the Fajara golf course and around Kotu and he quoted us £10.  Not too much to lose!

 

We agreed, and with that he set off with us - back the way we had come!  In the half hour it took us to retrace our steps to the Palma Rima he had found and identified a further twelve lifers on the same ground!  He then whistled out a pearl spotted owlet from a tree he knew it would be in, and by the end of the cycle track our score just for that morning was up to 28 lifers.  Adding those from the hotel, I'd already surpassed my expectations for the entire week!  Six more lifers followed at Fajara and Kotu before Dembo, our guide, left us at lunchtime.

 

We used Dembo for two other mornings - at Bijilo and Abuko - and remained very well pleased with this help. 

 

His address is:

 

Mr Dembo Sonko

Honey Bird Guide

P.M.B. 733

Serrekunda

Banjul

The Gambia

West Africa

 

Tel: Serrekunda (+220) 374060 8pm - 9pm daily

Fax: 393274

Dembo (left) with his driver, Abu

 

Dembo has since acquired an e-mail address, and will check his e-mails (at a cybercafe) once or twice a week.  e-mail: dembosonko@hotmail.com

 

 

Maas Chan: The Senegambia has a "Birdman", Maas Chan, who provides a weekly programme.  This ranges from a walk around the grounds (twice a week, donations) and a slideshow (once a week) to trips to various locations, including Abuko, Bund Road, Kotu, etc.  For the trips he uses an open 4 wheel drive (with roll bars!) and takes from a minimum of four people (viability) to a maximum of eight (capacity).

 

He does a weekly "Birds and Breakfast" trip to Lamin Lodge, Creek and Fields.  We wanted to book for this (which would have been on our second full day, Sunday) but we were the only two interested, so it didn't run.  We did do his "Forest Awakening" trip - see diary (Tuesday) for an account.  This cost 450 dalasis (£22.50) per person for almost a full day, including breakfast, which we thought fair value.

 

We found Maas a very likeable chap.  He gives the impression of being rather disorganized, and certainly runs to Gambia Maybe Time, but he knows his birds.  He also clearly loves his country and its people as well as its wildlife, and has been involved in various conservation projects.  He is jolly in a quiet way, with a good sense of humour.  I did find it necessary to walk right next to him and listen very carefully, to be sure I saw everything he saw!

 

The Senegambia programme is open to people staying at other hotels.  I didn't think to write down his contact number, but I'm sure the hotel reception would have it.  Bookings are usually made by writing your name in a rather dilapidated book in his "Bird Centre".  This is a an open round hut next to the swimming pool - to reach it you have to pass a notice saying "hotel residents only beyond this point", but it doesn't seem to matter.

 

Maas (or someone else in his absence) feeds the hooded vultures every day at 11.30 at the edge of the hotel pitch and putt course.  This attracts a small crowd of non-birding types - some of whom attend every day!  It's quite fun to walk among 60 or so of these unfortunately ugly birds - who would probably take food from the hand if you felt so inclined!  Half a dozen cattle egret get in on the act, and there are always black kite overhead and in the palm trees nearby, but I believe they rarely land to take the food.  After eating, the birds take a drink from a nearby puddle.  Some of the vultures also bathe, preen, and dry their wings, cormorant fashion!

 

The Gambia Experience: Our tour company offered a reasonable selection of excursions for those unwilling to make their own arrangements, including a very popular "roots" trip, one into Senegal, and a two day trip up country.  The only one we had the time to take advantage of was their "Birds and Breakfast" (as we were unable to do it with Maas).  See Diary for Thursday.

 

Climate, creepy crawly/flying things, health, etc.

 

Although very hot indeed in the middle of the day (from around 10.30 - 16.30) the early mornings, evenings and nights were pleasantly cool.  It was not at all humid, and at times a significant breeze was most welcome.  The sun shone without cease during daylight hours for the whole week.

 

We were very surprised at the lack of flying insects - indeed we didn't see more than half a dozen mosquitoes all week, despite a boat trip on the mangrove creeks and other time around water.

 

Our hotel room was not air conditioned (this is an optional extra, for about £7 a day, I believe) but had a ceiling fan which was quiet enough to leave on all night.  We only had to sleep on top of the bedclothes on the last night, which was hotter than the rest of the week.  Some of the locals had been complaining that the weather was "cold"!!!!

 

The most alarming creature encountered in our room was a beetle as long as your finger in the washbasin one day.  I'm afraid he was washed down the plughole (it could well have been a water beetle anyway?) and there-after the plug was left permanently in the washbasin!

 

We are both used to being bitten to glory in India (I notched up 65 bites below the knees on my first day last year!) until we discovered the local potion, which worked wonders.  In The Gambia, however, I went three days before getting a single bite - without using any potions - and only got about six all week.  Viv used potions and had even fewer bites than me.  We both wore long trousers, socks and closed in shoes whilst out birding in the mornings, but beach type wear, sandals and no socks around the hotel in the afternoons.

 

We ate a variety of foods in a variety of places, avoided the tap water (though I cleaned my teeth with it) and declined ice in our drinks.  We did have several ice creams at the hotel, and bought fruit (bananas, oranges) from local vendors.  Neither of us had any stomach problems (but then we have survived three trips to India without any too, touch wood!)

 

Books:

 

We bought, in the UK, "A Birdwatchers’ Guide to The Gambia" (Rod Ward) and "A Field Guide to the Birds of The Gambia and Senegal" (Barlow, Wacher & Disley) - both tremendously useful.  Dembo could tell us the plate number of any bird in the Barlow book, which saved a lot of thumbing of pages in the field! 

 

Diary:

 

Friday 19 January

 

Flight about twenty minutes late (thanks to Gatwick air traffic control, we were told).  First lifer from the aircraft steps - pied crow!  Cattle egret also at the airport.  Transfer coach had a blowout en route to the Senegambia - skillfully controlled by the driver.  A 40 minute wait at the (hot - about 35c) roadside for a replacement coach brought a pair of black headed plover in the verge opposite, hooded vultures overhead (both lifers!), several unidentified brown jobs and raptors, plus a large swarm of interested children and their mums from a nearby compound.

 

Having checked in, dumped our cases in our room, and grabbed a pair of shorts, we had an hour or more of daylight to explore the grounds.  With beautiful sunbird, long tailed glossy starling, red billed hornbill, Senegal coucal and white crowned robin chat in the bag (as well as bulbul and the commoner doves) we were fairly gob-smacked by the time it got dark!

 

Saturday 20 January

 

Up and dressed, awaiting the dawn chorus, by not long after six.   And waiting, and waiting!  It doesn't get light (in January anyway) until 7 - when it does so very quickly.  Not much of a dawn chorus either - the "Go Away Bird", as the locals call vinaceous dove because of his call, is always up first.  He is usually followed soon after by the slower and lower "I am, the red eyed dove", of his slightly larger cousin, but most birds don't seem to wake until the sun starts to light up the trees from 7.30 onwards.

Senegambia breakfast (a varied buffet) starts at 7, so we partook immediately they opened the door, and were back out birding again by a quarter past!  Pairs of the spectacular yeIIow crowned gonolek feeding on the grass, with their piercing calls and chatty immediate answer, amazed us.  So did a small flock of tiny red-billed firefinch, which we nearly trod on before they flew up.  Not realising that birds came so small (or so beautiful!), we started to examine the ground more closely - before the morning was through we had flocks of bronze mannakin, pairs of the very pretty red cheeked cordon bIeu, and a few lavender waxbill.  Both sparrows, brown babbler, yellow billed shrike, the attractive speckled pigeon, and hundreds of village weaver, made for a very satisfying morning even before the vulture feeding spectacle.

 

After lunch - and a siesta to escape sunburn on our first day - we took a tourist taxi into Serrekunda for the weekly wrestling match.  Quite different from what the guide books had led us to expect, but enormous fun - as was "Marie's Pub" around the corner, where we called for a beer on the way - to the surprise and delight of Marie and her other customers!.

 

Sunday 21 January

 

I have described above (see Bird Guides section) how we walked to Kotu before meeting Dembo Sonko, and then spent the rest of the morning with him.  Highlights for us, other than the pearl spotted owlet, were close views of a perched black shouldered kite (which we managed to identify for ourselves, prior to meeting Dembo!), a perched lizard buzzard that flew, then popped back onto the wall to have another look at us, grey woodpecker, bearded barbet, splendid and variable sunbird, Senegal thick knee, Senegal parrot, rose ringed parakeet, little bee-eater and green wood hoopoe.  Still on the cycle track, a wet area on our left produced waders large and small, including sacred ibis; black-headed, squacco & green backed heron; black & great white egret; spur winged plover.

 

At Kotu creek and ponds we at last started to see birds more familiar to us!  These included dabchick, greenshank, common and wood sandpipers, bar tailed godwit, grey plover, ruff, whimbrel (we heard the much rarer curlew calling!), grey heron and little egret.  We were also pleased to see so many black winged stilt, including juveniles, at the ponds - not a lifer, but always such a welcome, elegant, bird.

 

Over a welcome beer at Kotu with Dembo (though like most of his compatriots he doesn't touch alcohol) we discussed a further arrangement.  He wanted to take us to Abuko, but we were not convinced we needed to travel that far, so declined.  We asked him if he would accompany us to Bijilo the next day, and he readily agreed, for the same price as today.  We spent the rest of the day eating, drinking, sunbathing and sleeping - with a turn around the hotel gardens at dusk that did not produce any new species, but was nevertheless most enjoyable.

 

Monday 22 January

 

Dembo appeared at our hotel gate on the dot of 7.45am, as arranged, and we walked the short distance to Bijilo Forest park, arriving as it opened.  We did the whole circuit, taking all morning.  In all we saw some 28 species plus three just outside, adding 13 to our Africa list - 11 of them lifers.  The latter included red necked falcon, both wood doves, grey backed camaroptera, northern crombec, northern black flycatcher, tawny flanked prinia, grey hornbill, black necked weaver, and white throated bee-eater.  At least two of the smaller birds were only seen thanks to Dembo's successful pishing, and some of the others only because he knew where to look.

 

Find of the morning was at the far, southern, end of the reserve.  Dembo suddenly beckoned us to follow silently down a side path to the perimeter fence, where he started imitating a call that was unfamiliar to us.  He had heard a Klaas's cuckoo in the distance (we hadn't!) but despite his persistent attempts, it did not seem to be getting any nearer.  Eventually we gave up, and returned to the main path where it climbs a short hill.  At the top we stopped for a banana and some water, and as we were resting, Dembo suddenly got excited and there, sure enough in the top a nearby tree, was the Klaas's, clearly in view.  We could tell that he enjoyed seeing it at least as much as we did!

 

Once again, we lazed in and out of the sun all afternoon, with a turn or two of the hotel garden once it started to cool down a bit.  Even though the Senegambia garden did not turn up a huge list for us during the week (it looks like 31, but I'm still sorting my notes out!) it had the bonus that the birds were very visible.  We never got such good looks at the likes of gonolek, robin chat, or yellow billed shrike at other locations - but in the gardens we could film them really close up with the camcorder on the tripod.  It also helped us get to know what were initially LBJs, such as bulbuls, babblers, thrush, by their call, habits, and general jizz, so that they were more readily recognisable out in the "field proper".  (Much like the advantage of a garden at home, perhaps, except we don't have one!)  Dembo joked that I was after his job when I started identifying bulbul, babbler, gonolek, etc. by their calls!

 

Tuesday 23 January

 

Up in the dark for a 6.30 (well, ish) start on Maas's "Forest Awakening" trip.  There were four of us on it, Viv and I, an elderly gent who has worked all over the world as a civil servant - and has a life list of 2,600 (!) and a young German woman.  The latter was a relief, as in Maas's book it said a German name, then in the "number of people" column it said "X4".  I've nothing in general against Germans, but they (indeed several nationalities, including Brits) can be a bit overpowering en masse!  Our visions of sunbeds in the back of the 4WD, and breakfast tables being pulled together, were dispelled when she explained that "X4" was, in fact, her room number!  She turned out to be very pleasant indeed, not a birder, but genuinely interested (and interesting - she had lived with an African family, and traveled widely).  I digress.

 

With Maas in front with the driver, we headed south down the new airport road for a while, then down a very bumpy road/track - still in pitch darkness!  It was, of course, chilly - and a bit breezy in the back of the 4WD - which Viv and I had foreseen and had dressed for accordingly, but not everyone had!  We stopped for a while to watch the first light creep into the sky - and got some (I hope) wonderful photos of a baobob tree silhouetted against a beautiful sky.  We then drove on to the town of Brufut, where the driver stopped to water the vehicle, and we were able to observe a rural community going about their early morning business.

 

We reached Brufut woods by the time it was light enough to see anything, and set off on a 2km walk, first through forest, then scrub, then agricultural land, to Brufut bridge.  The forest was very quiet, bird-wise, which seemed to surprise Maas.  We wondered whether the stiff breeze and relatively low temperatures were to blame.  The walk produced just 19 birds, mostly very common ones, prior to reaching the creek and bridge.  Our only two lifers were the first bird seen - pied hornbill - plus black headed weaver.  We added one more to our Africa list - grey wagtail (which I was surprised to see, apparently a good distance from any water).  There was a dispute about another - Maas's original i/d of yellow bellied hyliata being eventually over-ruled by the elderly gent's insistence that it was black and white flycatcher.  As the latter is described as a Gambian vagrant in the book we decided not to tick it as either.

 

The area around Brufut bridge was comparatively productive - a dozen birds including our first African darter (not a lifer - we see it in India), our second bearded barbet, showing beautifully, another grey kestrel and assorted waders.  There was a fleeing kingfisher, but it was not identified.  On the road again, and two lifers in quick succession - blue bellied roller, and the lovely African green pigeon.

 

We then trundled and squeezed our way down some tracks to a place called Paradise Inn for a leisurely breakfast of the most delicious omelette and fresh bread.  Eventually finding Maas afterwards, we proceeded to Tanji - a bustling (and very interesting) fishing village on the edge of the ocean, where we learnt that the tide was sufficiently out for us to drive along the beach.

 

The beach near Tanji produced sacred ibis (already seen on the cycle track) plus two more for our Africa list - ringed plover and a party of sanderling doing what sanderling do, at the edge of the tide.  Hurtling along the beach at good speeds in the 4WD was fun, though we had to make a small detour inland to negotiate a headland.  It was also very productive!  An overhead mixed flock of pink backed and great white pelicans looked marvelous in the sun and gave us two lifers, a long crested eagle became a third, and we added oystercatcher, black tailed godwit, little ringed plover and turnstone to our Africa list. 

 

This stretch of coast is called Paradise Beach - with very good reason.  Totally uninhabited (apart from the occasional herd of cows!), firm golden sand for miles, it is much prettier then the overused and erosion-protected beach outside the Kololi hotels.  Rounding another headland, we found a large gull and tern roost on a rocky outcrop - mainly grey headed gull, sandwich tern and Caspian tern, but Maas was able to find royal and lesser crested tern for us in his scope - another three lifers!

 

After a small lunch (we'd hardly digested breakfast) at a beach café called the Osprey bar - and a most welcome first Julbrew of the day - we set off back north, via some more tracks that were slightly narrower in places than the 4WD!  Here we added three more lifers - Veillot's barbet, namaqua dove and melodious warbler.

 

It was now getting on for three in the afternoon, and our older companion had to get back as quickly as possible for medical reasons, so Maas was unable to make his customary stop at a village school that he supports.  Standing in the back of the 4WD with me, as we rattled and bumped along dirt roads, he pointed out yellow billed oxpecker on the back of a distant cow, but I was unable to pick it out, I'm afraid.

 

All in all a super day.  Though the birding was on the thin side at times, my trip list was 55 birds, with 22 additions to the Africa/Gambia/holiday list, 14 of them lifers.  On top of that we were able to see a number of villages and small towns close up, which I found equally interesting, and our little party in the back of the jeep had also bonded well, producing some good conversation.

 

Wednesday 24 January

 

After our second assignation with Dembo on Monday, which went so well, he again suggested Abuko.  We still were not sure that we wanted to go there, but other birders at the hotel returned from a trip with Maas that afternoon, and had seen a lot.  They were especially impressed by Verrieux's eagle owl with chick at a nest, which could apparently be easily seen.  We therefore decide to that we would go there ourselves on our last uncommitted day, and rang Dembo that night to ask him to make arrangements.

 

We duly met him, and driver Abu, at the hotel gate at 7.30am, and set off in Abu's (fairly small) covered 4 wheel drive, arriving at Abuko for opening time at 8.  We agreed that Abu would pick us up again at 11 - which Dembo said would be time enough (we wanted to be back for lunch).

 

The education centre/hide is not far into the park, and on approaching it Dembo spied great kingfisher perched on a tree right beside it.  We got a good close look, but of course it flew whilst I was setting up the camcorder.  We then went up onto the balcony of the centre, where Dembo showed us the eagle owl and nest.  I got some good zoomed film with the camcorder on the tripod - the chick was in the nest and facing us directly, blinking its eyes like some motorized cuddly toy! Super!  From the same spot we also just managed to see black crake disappearing into the grass beside the crocodile pool - three lifers already!

 

Number four was a gorgeous blue breasted kingfisher, perched for a long time on a branch just in front of the photo hide, which it shared with a darter, about a foot away.  They were too close to get them both in my lens simultaneously on zoom, so I got some really good shots.  After they had gone, a hamerkop took up the same position, and there were plenty of sleepy black headed, squacco, and night heron around the pool, too.

Before we regained the main path we got a glimpse of double spurred francolin in the undergrowth, and shortly afterwards snowy crowned robin chat (which had so far eluded us at the Senegambia, though we had been assured there was one in amongst all the (larger) white crowneds in the garden).  Dembo then whistled a common wattle eye out of the bushes, and with glimpses of red bellied paradise flycatcher and little greenbul, we had notched up nine lifers in under an hour!

 

We got six more before the morning was out: a distant fanti saw-wing, lanner falcon and African harrier hawk flying over, a scarlet chested sunbird, and white crested helmet shrike posing for us beautifully.  The last, after a lot of searching, was green crested turaco - we'd been hearing turaco consistently for a time, but hadn't managed to set eyes on one - and we certainly wouldn't have done either, without Dembo's persistent vigilance.

 

By the time we left the reserve, we were more than half an hour late for our transport - but not, of course, according to Gambia Maybe Time, so it didn't matter!  The morning had seen 37 birds, with 16 additions to the week's list - and all those except the night heron were lifers.

 

Thursday 25 January

 

An even earlier start today - at 5.40am!  "Birds and Breakfast" with the tour company (Gambia Experience)  The coach is already at the Hotel gate and, as I feared, has a good few people on board.  By the time we pick up at a couple more hotels, we number about twenty, of whom the birders are a small minority. In the event, though I would have preferred a smaller group, it turns out to be a good morning's birding - and I doubt we would have seen much, if anything, more had the group been a quarter of the size.

 

There is just one dog awake as we leave the darkened streets of Kololi, and head for Serrekunda.  The City itself is starting to wake, with a stream of bush taxis already on the road, but by the time we turn off the main Birkama highway, it is till pitch black.  Amazingly, the full size tour coach negotiates a mile or so of dirt track, before we reach Lamin Lodge (pictured).  Here, still in total darkness, we are ushered across a rickety wooden bridge (with no handrail one side!) - why didn't we bring the torch?

 

We fetch up in a small, open sided, wooden restaurant just as the first hint of grey is lighting the horizon.  A welcome cup of coffee later, it is light, and we pick our way along a wooden jetty to the boats.  Viv and I are among those loaded very gingerly into the first one - a long, ancient, affair, with barely a couple of inches of freeboard and just room to seat two abreast.  The second boat seats one abreast, whilst the third, larger, safer looking craft, has most seats facing inwards.  Each has a bird guide sat in the bow, and a man with a paddle at the stern.

 

We set off, the three boats abreast, in reasonable quietness, across a mangrove lined lake and into a creek.  The guides identify two African spoonbills overhead, and our second lifer for the day is a flying long tailed cormorant - surprisingly the only example all week of this apparently almost abundant bird.  On a mudbank in the creek we add curlew and curlew sandpiper to our African list.  The twenty three birds seen on the hour long cruise include osprey (wonderfully common in The Gambia), black egret, black headed and reef heron, a selection of waders, and black shouldered kite.

 

As we retrace our ripples back to the Lodge, green vervet monkeys are awaiting us on the roof (we also saw these close to at Bijilo, and red colobus ones at Abuko).  A buffet breakfast is served, following which we set off for a slow (2km?) amble with the three guides.  Mine is the only scope in the party, and much in use - the guides suggest various cash raising scams!  We pass wetlands, and then meander through smallhldings where various vegetables, herbs, etc are being tended.

 

Highlights for us include green backed eremomela (lifer), a good view of namaqua dove, pipiac (only our third!), splendid views of little bee-eater, a fairly far off short toed eagle (lifer), and two intermediate egrets on the ground (lifer).  We then find rufous crowned roller (lifer), our second grey woodpecker, and a first for Africa fork tailed drongo (seen as black drongo in India, I believe) - all in the same tree!

 

At this point one of the guides takes my scope from me, whispers "I know where there is an owl" and beetles off up the track.  When we reach him he has it trained (but at almost impossible angle for anyone over two feet tall) on part of the back of a very well hidden white-faced scops owl - goodness knows how he found it.  I can't see it for the life of me, but Viv manages to as, in some cases with difficulty, do twenty holiday-makers, one by one.  I still can't see it, but I'm not going anywhere until I do!  The guide stays behind with me, and after a deep breath we make a fresh start and yes, there it is.  Phew, and how embarrassing - it's my scope after all!

 

The only other event of the morning is a willow warbler, which comes as a bit of a surprise, and is a first outside Europe.

 

Friday 26 January

 

Departure day, but the coach doesn't go until 13.30.  We spend most of the morning in the Senegambia grounds filming (much of it wasted as the film is damaged when the camcorder comes adrift from the tripod!) and retiring from the sun at intervals to do a bit more packing.  We don’t find anything new - despite looking really hard for our missing yellow fronted tinkerbird, which is common, supposed to be here, and has been heard by other birders staying at the hotel!  Still, having had lifer after lifer for each of the past seven days, I'm not complaining!

 

 

Full species list will follow