Birdwatching in the Gambia
Renowned as one of the most rewarding birdwatching destinations in the world, a trip to the Gambia will not disappoint – this really is birding at its very best.
Words and pictures: Ed Hutchings
In 1863, Sir Richard Francis Burton said “Gambia is said to mean clear water, surely a misnomer, it is as muddy as the Mersey.” Whatever the views of the 19th Century explorer (one among many métiers), the River Gambia is strongly associated with its namesake, the smallest country in mainland Africa, which consists of little more than the downstream half of the river and its two banks.
Legend has it that the 30-mile width of The Gambia was decided by the furthest distance British gunboats could fire their cannonballs from the river. Fifteen miles would seem fanciful even for the most powerful of 19th Century cannons. Ballistics aside, this diminutive Africa nation is saturated with winged wonders. The avian delights of The Gambia are renowned throughout the birding world.
Your hotel garden could produce as many species in a day as you would see in a week back home. The obvious place to start any tour of The Gambia is on the coast, where a proliferation of decent hotels is to be found.
The Kotu Creek area (where most of the hotels are situated) provides the perfect introduction to the country’s avifauna, where one may find Black Heron, Black-headed Lapwing, Blue-bellied Roller, White-crowned Robin Chat, Beautiful Sunbird, Yellow-crowned Gonolek and water birds, including the chance of Greater Painted-snipe.
Here, too, is the stall of The Gambia Birdwatchers’ Association, where you can pick up a guide, safe in the knowledge that they are suitably qualified. Ten kilometres south of Kotu, the Abuko Nature Reserve is one of The Gambia’s 13 Important Bird Areas (IBA) and one of the best known.
The reserve consists of typical savanna and gallery forest (fed from ground water as opposed to rain) landscape with trees, some up to 30ft high, including African Oil Palm, Mahogany and Teak.
More than 270 bird species have been recorded in the forest, including Black Heron, Hamerkop, Green and Violet Turacos, Little Greenbul, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Oriole Warbler, African and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers and Common Wattle-eye. There is also the possibility of seeing African Pygmy Kingfisher, Western Bluebill, Western Red Colobus, Green Monkey, Kéwel and Maxwell’s Duiker.
Lepidopterists won’t be disappointed as the reserve is one of the best places in the country for butterflies and moths. Snakes are common but rarely seen. We were lucky to see a huge two-metre Black-necked Spitting Cobra appear on the path in front of us on my last visit.
Heading west for a dozen miles and back near the coast, Brufut Woods – a green oasis in an alarmingly increasingly urban environment – harbours species such as Long-tailed Nightjar, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Blue-bellied and Abyssinian Rollers, African Pied Hornbill, Yellow-throated Leaflove, White-crowned Robin Chat, Northern Crombec, Red-winged Warbler and also Copper Sunbird.
There is also the likelihood of seeing Verreaux’s Eagle and Northern White-faced Owls, Black Scimitarbill and Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike. Just west of Brufut, the Tanji Bird Reserve (IBA) incorporates mangrove, dry woodland and coastal dune scrub woodland.
Along the coastal part there is a series of lagoons, while the offshore Bijol Islands are important sites for breeding marine turtles and roosting birds.
The reserve has had more than 300 species of bird recorded within it – more than half of all those recorded in The Gambia. These include gulls and terns, such as Kelp and Slender-billed Gulls, as well as Royal Tern. There is also the likelihood of seeing Pied-winged Swallow, Senegal Batis and White Helmetshrike. A terrific eco-lodge is also to be found within the reserve.
A further 10km down the coast, the rather more open habitats around Tujereng support Black Scimitarbill, Red-winged Warbler, Yellow Penduline Tit and Orange-cheeked Waxbill. There is also the prospect of seeing Temminck’s Courser, Striped Kingfisher, Brown-backed Woodpecker, White-fronted Black Chat, White-shouldered Black Tit and White Helmetshrike.
Heading back inland and east for 30km, brings one to the excellent Pirang Forest Park (IBA) which is brimming with such delights as African Green Pigeon, Green and Violet Turacos, African Pied Hornbill, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Green Crombec and Green Hylia.
Lucky birders will also have a shot at seeing White-spotted Flufftail, African Wood, Verreaux’s Eagle and Northern White-faced Owls and Yellowbill.
Greyish Eagle Owl is also possible a short hop east at the Faraba Banta bush track. Another short jump further east, Brown-necked Parrot may be found at Sotokoi on occasion. Lastly, and before leaving the West Coast Region, the roadside village of Kampanti is renowned for a wide variety of large raptors that visit the waterhole. Blue-bellied Roller and Piapiac add further interest.
The shift from the West Coast Division into the Lower River Division may be administrative, but there is a palpable change in the landscape, too. The further one heads east, the greater the sense of Africa and the surrounding bush. Huge trees dot the landscape, only preserved owing to their sanctity. The sea breezes melt away and the baking heat of the interior envelops everything.
Only the muddy banks of the River Gambia offer scant relief. About 150km east of Banjul, perched on the river itself, Tendaba Camp is an essential stop on any trip upriver, as well as the Bao Bolon Wetland Reserve (IBA), which is found on the opposite bank.
There is a change in the avifauna here, too, with a roll call of spectacular localised and widespread African classics. Such birds include African Darter, White-backed Night Heron, Goliath Heron, African Fish and Martial Eagles, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and Black Scimitarbill.
Add to the mix African Blue Flycatcher, Brown Sunbird, Bronze-tailed Glossy Starling and Brown-rumped Bunting.
With an element of luck, one might encounter African Finfoot, Spotted Thick-knee, Bronze-winged Courser, Four-banded Sandgrouse, African Scops Owl, Standard-winged Nightjar, Grey-headed and Woodland Kingfishers, White-throated Bee-eater, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Green Monkey and Senegal Bushbaby. The guides will happily help you look for the latter after dark.
Tendaba Camp itself offers basic accommodation, though now looking somewhat tired and resting on its laurels these days.
Immediately west of Tendaba, the huge Kiang West National Park (IBA) occupies an area of 11,526 hectares of Guinean savanna and dry deciduous woodland. The park’s numerous tree species include Baobab, Red Acacia, African Rosewood, Kapok, Afara, African Mesquite and Sycamore Fig. Representatives of most of The Gambia’s remaining mammal species are found within Kiang West, including Guinea Baboon, Senegal Bushbaby and Common Warthog.
Reptiles are also prevalent, including West African Crocodile (split from Nile Crocodile in 2011). However, it is the birds that really shine, with more than three hundred species recorded, including 21 species of raptor. The latter are best seen during the dry season, including the park’s official symbol, the Bateleur. There is also the chance of finding Greyish Eagle Owl here.
A total of 35km east of Tendaba, on the south side of the River Gambia before the Farafenni ferry crossing, the roadside wetlands at Soma offer the first real chance of Egyptian Plover. Opportunities for seeing it any further west of here are very slim indeed at any time of the year. Keep an eye out for African Fish Eagle while enjoying the colourful carnival atmosphere of the ferry crossing.
Once you are on the north side of the River Gambia and in the Farafenni area, there is the possibility of seeing Savile’s Bustard. This is the North Bank Division and, once again, there is a marked shift in the landscape.
This is Sudanian savanna, characterised by the coexistence of trees and grasses, as well as it being noticeably drier. Continuing from Farafenni on the north bank of the River Gambia for 37km, and on the way to Janjangbureh (formerly Georgetown) ferry crossing, brings you to the Kaur Wetlands (IBA) which is situated in the Central River Division.
Here, one has an even-better chance of Egyptian Plover (bettered only by Basse much further east) from November to December. We saw several on our visit in late October. The definitive target species for any birder visiting The Gambia, the Egyptian Plover is a striking and unmistakable species, with its spectacularly contrasting plumage of black, white, blue-grey and orange.
They are usually very tame and allow a close approach. Good thing, too, as these are among the most photogenic of birds. Further interest at Kaur is added by large flocks of Collared Pratincole and Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark.
So, when to go? The peak time for birds is during the dry season from November to March, though it usually lasts until May. November is the most reliable time for Egyptian Plover, the presence of which is dependent on water levels. The temperature is usually high, especially in March and April, but a little lower during December and January. Regardless, whenever and wherever you go, you won’t know which way to look.
What to expect from a birdwatching trip to the Gambia
The Gambia has long been a popular destination for UK birders, and deservedly so. In winter, a six-hour flight from the UK winter sees you arriving in this small sun-kissed country during the dry season, when you can expect temperatures in the high 20s or low 30s °C. Often described as a finger poking in the side of Senegal, the country’s borders follow the River Gambia, and for much of its 205-mile length it is only 15-20 miles wide.
Gambia birdwatching fact-file:
ED Hutchings travelled with The Gambia Experience (01489 866939. www.gambia.co.uk) offering the largest choice of accommodation and flights to The Gambia, along with a wide range of birding options, including guided tours with Chris Packham https://www.gambia.co.uk/birdwatching-holidays. Its accommodation collection includes the Mandina Lodges at Makasutu, hidden away in the African bush on a mangrove lined tributary of the River Gambia, a lush and peaceful haven teeming with birds and wildlife. Prices for a seven night stay in a jungle lodge are available from £1199 per person (Half Board), which has a saving of £159pp and includes flights and transfers. Ngala Lodge is a luxury boutique hotel which can be combined for the ultimate 11-night beach and wildlife twin centre.
Prices for a four-night add-on stay at Ngala in a Standard Suite are available from £358pp and include breakfast and all transfers.