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. Mostly flat or gently undulating, its rich fauna can be attributed to its huge diversity of habitats. The western coast looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and islands such as Jinak, while the shallow continental shelf provides abundant fish for both the local fishing industry and seabirds. Except for some relatively compact tourist areas, the vast sandy beaches are largely deserted and often hide dune systems and wetlands. There is woodland, savannah, farmland and scrub and the estuaries of both the Gambia River and the Casamance River have complex deltas with a combination of mudflats and mangroves providing food for herons, egrets and waders as well as nesting sites for many birds.
I am currently planning my eighth holiday in The Gambia and for all but the first trip I have stayed in eco-lodges and camps. Gambia now has an established and growing network of eco-lodges, run on environmentally sound principles and employing local people. Fortunately for us, these lodges are located in some of the best bird-rich habitats this small country has to offer. Despite going back year after year I have never failed to add new species to my Gambian list but I still have a long way to go to see all of the country’s birds, which is fast approaching 600.
Easily more than 200 of these can be spotted on short trips from coastal eco-Lodges such as Footsteps at Gunjur and Farakunku Lodges at Tujereng. By combining a stay at these lodges with an upriver trip to Tendaba and perhaps up to Georgetown a list of more than 300 birds is easily achieved in a fortnight. Some lodges, such as Footsteps and Farakunku, provide fully guided birding packages which can be booked in advance, visiting birding hotspots such as Brufut Woods, Abuko Nature Reserve and the Faraba Banta bush track but you can see a lot just within walking distance of the lodges.
Jinack Lodge is the most remote of the eco-lodges situated on a ‘desert island’ of that name and is available for accommodation or a day visit. There is no electricity and the lodge is run on eco-principles, growing their own vegetables and harvesting fish from the Atlantic Ocean. Passerine birds include resident species such as Yellow-crowned Gonolek, African Silverbill, Senegal Coucal and Black-crowned Tchagra as well as a host of paleartic warblers wintering there and inter-African migrants such as Namaqua Dove and Woodland Kingfisher. The largest colony of Caspian Terns in the world (40,000 pairs) breed there and many can still be seen during the dry season along with Royal Terns, Grey-headed, Kelp and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (from Norway!) along with Pink-backed Pelicans, egrets, herons and waders.
Marakissa Lodge provides accommodation and merits a morning’s birding and lunch on the terrace. The speciality bird is Spotted Honeyguide, which can be seen visiting the feeders. The same feeders also provided me with the closest views I have ever had of Yellow-throated Leaflove, while the creek at the back offered excellent views of Giant Kingfisher and Black Crake. The extensive woodlands have been partially ruined by the construction of a new road but still hold the uncommon leaflove, White-crested Helmet-shrikes and Violet Turaco. Indeed, on my last visit to Marakissa in January 2013, I notched up more than 80 species.
Farakunku Lodge and Tujereng area are close to the west coast, with the ocean a 40-minute walk away. Inland walks mainly cover open areas dotted with trees and are excellent for a variety of raptors including Long-crested Eagle and Black-shouldered Kite, as well as Wattled Plovers and Four-banded Sandgrouse. A walk to the coast takes in a flooded quarry by the main road, which sometimes hosts Giant Kingfishers.
Within walking distance of Farakunku is Tujereng Wood. Actually a relatively open area peppered with silk cotton trees, the misnamed wood is one of the most reliable sites for the rare Bru-bru – a type of shrike, but is also good for Striped Kingfisher – a dry land kingfisher, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weavers and White-shouldered Black Tits among many others. A driver can drop you off if it’s hot or better still employ a Gambian Bird Guide who will locate the many specialities by song and call.
Further south, Footsteps Eco-Lodge boasts particularly green credentials combined with a high standard of accommodation. Star billing goes to an un-chlorinated, freshwater plunge pool filtered through a reedbed. As well as the usual Village Weavers, Orange-cheeked Waxbills make their home in the reeds, and the pool attracts scores of birds which come to drink and bathe, including African Pygmy Kingfisher, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher and at least three species of swallow.
Immediately adjacent to Footsteps is an area of mature woodland which holds a host of interesting species including White-crested Helmet-Shrike, Pied Hornbill, Common or Brown Wattle-eye and Grey-headed Bristlebill. Combine a visit to the wood with a walk to a wetland area just beyond ‘Iceland’ a village built on top of a windy ridge on the sand dunes – it is very cold by Gambian standards! You can notch up 100 species in a morning and if you’re unfamiliar with Gambian birds then ask to go with Lamin, a reliable bird guide based at Footsteps.
A short drive south brings you to Kartong, which in my opinion is one of the best birding sites in the whole of The Gambia. It is also the location of West Africa’s only bird observatory run by an Englishman: Colin Cross and his Gambian wife Binta. It is well worth employing Colin to give you a guided tour of this fabulous coastal wetland, which was the result of flooding redundant sand mines. More than 180 species have been recorded at Kartong and my highlights have included Painted Snipe, Purple Swamphen, and both Long-tailed and Standard-winged Nightjars.
Finally a stay at Tendaba Camp, a day’s drive upriver, is essential for the boat trip into the bolons (mangrove creeks) across the river from the camp. This affords your best chance of seeing African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron and the huge Goliath Heron. White-throated and Ruby–throated Bee-eaters are also likely and Mouse-brown Sunbird is virtually guaranteed. Expect to see three or more species of Kingfisher and many raptors, including, if you are as lucky as I was on my last trip, Martial Eagles.
I hope this has whetted your appetite for eco-birding in a country whose wildlife, people and culture I have truly come to love.
The dry season runs from November to April, when flights can be booked with Thomas Cook or Monarch and Gambia Bird. Some scheduled flights are also available from the continent such as Brussels Airways, but these tend to be more expensive. Airport transfers can be arranged through the lodges.