The Gambia – A Taste of Africa Just Six Hours Away

Hooded Vultures Gambia 2017 1

You know you are in Africa when there are Hooded Vultures in the street!

We arrived in the capital of The Gambia, Banjul, early evening just as the light was fading. Our flight in was delayed so no time for any real birding on this first day of our Birdwatching Trip. We were met at the airport by our “ground crew” Simon and Niki, our great friends and ground agents and our local guide Tijan. We piled into Tijan’s well used minibus as Little Swifts and Yellow-billed Kites flew above us.

A short drive took us to our lovely small boutique hotel complete with pool and lovely private gardens, we were going to enjoy staying here. Having settled in we all met up for a pre-dinner drink in the warmth of an African evening. The food was delicious and we chatted excitedly about the birds that lay ahead on this nine day trip to The Gambia, the first time in West Africa for all our guests.

At first light we were exploring the gardens of the hotel and enjoying the warmth after leaving the chilly UK behind. Both Red-eyed and Laughing Doves were easy to see and a flash of colour announced the arrival of our first Beautiful Sunbird, this tiny gem certainly lived up to its name! A bird flew in landing in a fig tree and again our jaws dropped, a Yellow-crowned Gonolek what a beauty! Shocking red below, black above with a daffodil yellow crown, we were loving Gambian birds already. The colourful species kept coming with White-crowned Robin-chat closely followed by an equally stunning Snowy-crowned Robin-chat both really gorgeous birds. We had to force ourselves to the breakfast table to enjoy a lovely selection of fruit and cooked food. But the birding didn’t stop as a pair of Red-necked Falcons tore through the garden hunting as a tag-team chasing an African Palm Swift around the swimming pool, breath-taking stuff!

Heading out into the warm African day a short drive took us to an area of scub-woodland where we stepped out of the minibus and immediately saw Hooded Vultures on the ground just yards away, amazing views and cameras clicked like crazy! Stunning Long-tailed Glossy Starlings posed with their green iridescent plumage looking fantastic in the now hot sunshine. A Lanner Falcon cruised overhead as Broad-billed Rollers hawked for insects above us – welcome to Africa! We really didn’t know where to look next, so much to see, and we were still standing right by the vehicle, amazing!

Northern white faced Scops Owl Gambia 1

Tricky to see at first - Northern White-faced Scops Owl.

Tijan took us for a walk through the woodland and pointed up into the branches, at first, we could see just branches, then we saw it, a Northern White-faced Scops Owl! What a lovely looking bird. We spent a good while watching and photographing this bird, it was tricky to get the right angle to see the bird's face through the leaves but eventually everyone was happy with their images and views. Nearby we entered an area of bushes and met up with a friend of Tijan's and one by one he led us silently to a special spot. At first we could just see leaves on the ground under the bushes but then the penny dropped, amongst the leaves was a nightjar! Not just a nightjar but a very special one indeed, a Standard-winged Nightjar, what a wonderful bird and only a few yards away. Then to our amazement our new friend pointed out a second nightjar just a few feet beyond the first! This bird was much paler with a long tail, Long-tailed Nightjar. We were stunned, two really tough birds to see at the same spot – wow!

Standard winged Nightjar Gambia 1

This cryptically plumaged Standard-winged Nightjar blended in amongst the dead leaves.

Lavender Waxbill Gambia 1

The delightful Lavender Waxbill is a garden bird in The Gambia.

With the heat really building now and bird activity slowing we headed off for lunch at Tijan’s house. A table in the shade in the garden and cold drinks were very welcome. But even here new birds kept coming, the garden feeders, RSPB’s best, were busy with both Little and Village Weavers, Red-billed Firefinches and Northern Grey-headed Sparrows. In the weed patch we were thrilled to watch lovely Lavender Waxbills, dove grey with scarlet tails. After a relaxing lunch we headed out to the fish market by the beach. Not a fragrant place for sure, the fish were drying in the hot sun, and the ladies busy gutting fish as more were being landed on the beach by the fishermen made for a busy scene. But of course, we had come here for birds and there were plenty to see! Grey-headed Gulls were busy grabbing scraps in the surf and by carefully checking through them we found two Slender-billed Gulls, a single Black-headed Gull and a good few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Lots of terns were here too diving just beyond the surf, most were massive red-billed Caspian Terns and it was great to compare these with small numbers of Royal Terns. A few Sandwich Terns, a Common Tern and two Lesser Crested Terns made for brilliant birding. On the beach, waders were feeding and we had close views of familiar species – Bar-tailed Godwits, Sanderling, Whimbrel, Grey Plover and Common Sandpiper. Ospreys fished offshore and Western Reef Herons waded through the shallow sea, what a busy place!

Grey headed Gulls Gambia 1

All happening at the fish market - Grey-headed Gulls.

Back at our lovely tranquil hotel we processed all we had seen, only one day of the tour done but our heads were spinning with so, so many birds and experiences.

Early next morning we were on the road before breakfast heading inland following the huge River Gambia east in search of more birds and one in particular - Egyptian Plover, our most-wanted possible bird of the trip. We stopped in a busy town for breakfast, a colourful experience and a chance to see how friendly the Gambian people are, no hassle at all just nice smiling faces all around. The day was very much a travel day though of course we made stops for birds as and when opportunities arose. The first stop at a forest area had us watching Grey Eagle Owls at a daytime roost and when we returned to the minibus two spectacular Bearded Barbets flew in and landed in a dead tree in the morning sun! We were thrilled to see these large colourful barbets showing so well. Through the Leica telescopes we could see every feather detail. At a nearby creek we watched Senegal Thick-knees, Wattled Plovers and Little Bee-eaters before hitting the road again.

Bearded Barbet Gambia 1

This pair of Bearded Barbets showed off in the African sunshine - just wow!

After a long drive we reached Tendaba Camp on the banks of the river. It has to be said the rooms here were pretty grim, but we were a lot closer to our most-wanted bird here and there seems to be no alternative places to stay in the area. The next morning, we visited the jokingly called “Terminal 1, Tendaba Airport”, an area of mudflats and scrub not an airport at all! Here we again had a mix of familiar, less familiar and the exotic of birds to enjoy. Common Snipe, Greenshank and Little Ringed Plover were all feeding here. Next to these British waders were “European” species – Slender-billed Gulls, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns. Alongside these birds we were dazzled by Green Wood Hoopoe, Abyssinian Roller and Senegal Parrot – a riot of colour! Later we took a boat trip on the mighty River Gambia, a great way to enjoy close up views of the birds and enjoy the breeze, it was very hot. African Darters were very common along the mangrove channels that we slowly moved along. Pied Kingfishers seemed to be every fifty yards and plenty of Blue-breasted Kingfishers too but these much more wary than their black and white cousins. Collared Pratincoles and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hawked above us, Hammerkops stood in the shallows and a Yellow-billed Stork flapped slowly past as Pink-backed Pelicans swam ahead of the boat, wow!

Next morning, we left Tendaba and headed further inland and closer to the most-wanted Egyptian Plover! Our progress was slow as we kept seeing amazing birds along the roadside that demanded a stop! A huge and powerful Martial Eagle posed for the cameras before lifting off – what an impressive raptor. Bateleur – a colourful eagle – swept across the blue sky, all wing no tail and we were in awe of this superb bird! We reached a ferry crossing and our hearts sank when we saw the massive queue waiting to cross the River Gambia, surely, we would be here for days? But Tijan was on his phone and minutes later we were waved through right to the very front past hundreds of waiting cars, lorries, ox-carts, wheelbarrows, cows both dead and alive! We did feel a tiny bit guilty for jumping the queue but very thankful that we could! It was very hot and smelly, and it would have been grim to sit there for many hours if not days. Safely on the north bank of the river we drove further east and soon reached a wetland area with patches of dry soil and a few bushes, perhaps not the most promising area? But it was, Egyptian Plover!! Yes, there was our most wanted bird just yards away on the bare terracotta earth in the sun, oh wow! Panic broke out, everyone talking at once, grabbing cameras, trying to get a clear view through the minibus windows as Tijan moved the vehicle forward. “Stop, stop!” we shouted, fearful that the bird might flush before we had good views. But the plover was settled and we all piled out and soaked up this fabulous wader, a lifetime of waiting to see this bird for Alan! Cameras clicked away as the Egyptian Plover did what plovers all over the world do, walk a few steps, stop, look, listen, walk a few steps, repeat. It was interesting to see how the warm orange colour of the bird’s underparts almost mirrored the colour of the earth it walked upon. Hopefully the photos here give you an idea of just what a special bird the Egyptian Plover is and why the anticipation of seeing it was so, so high.

Egyptian Plover Gambia 1

And what a bird the Egyptian Plover is, just one of the best birds we have ever seen!

Egyptian Plover Gambia 2

Also known as the "crocodile bird" as legend has it that it cleans the teeth of crocs!

We had our picnic lunch nearby alongside a shallow pool where there were plenty of birds to keep us busy as we ate. Two more gorgeous Egyptian Plovers were on the track that bisected the pool. Marsh Sandpiper and Montagu’s Harrier were new for our trip list and there lots of both Spur-winged and Wattled Plovers along with Squacco Herons and Hammerkops, just brilliant birding. Soon after we had moved on, we found a fourth Egyptian Plover by a small pool and using the minibus as a mobile hide we had amazing views, what a memorable day it had been.

Gambia Group 2017

Our very happy fun-loving group enjoying a Gambian picnic in the sun.

But the day was not finished yet. We stopped at a quarry and watched hundreds, yes hundreds of Red-throated Bee-eaters, yet another totally lovely bird on this colourful trip. Again, cameras were in overdrive as the wonderful birds showed off in the afternoon sun. The site also held a pair of Northern Anteater Chats which allowed great views, two Little Green Bee-eaters were another super bird here. A short drive took us to another ferry, luckily no queue here and we soon reached an island in the River Gambia where we were to stay at a riverside hotel. Thankfully better rooms here!

Adamawa Turtle Dove Gambia 1

We were so lucky to see an Adamawa Turtle Dove posing in the sunshine!

Early next morning we took another boat trip up the River Gambia. It was flat calm and cool early on, but the sun soon came up and heat returned. Plenty to see as we kept close to the north bank of the river – Palm-nut Vultures, Violet Turacos, Senegal Coucals, Black-crowned Night Herons and more. We landed and had only just got out of the boat when Tijan got very excited. He had obviously seen something but what and where?! After a bit of confusion we saw a dove sitting high in a dead tree in full view in the sunshine. We could barely believe our eyes as we were watching an Adamawa Turtle Dove – a rare range-restricted species and new for everyone in our group! A real thrill to see such an unexpected species and to have amazing prolonged views. Very, very happy we took the boat back towards the hotel and had yet another amazing sighting – African Finfoot! Finfoot are grebe-like birds that lurk under overhanging waterside vegetation so are often difficult to find. But we didn’t see just see one but a total of six of these amazing birds, unheard of to see so many on one boat trip! At one point we had three Finfoot in view at once and we were thrilled to enjoy these special aquatic birds.

African Finfoot Gambia 1

African Finfoot, usually hard to see, we watched six on one boat trip!

We had some downtime back at the hotel and then set off to some nearby rice-fields which were alive with birds! The light was stunning, and we enjoyed superb views of many species. Just a few of the highlights included Blue-bellied Roller, Red-necked Falcons, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Oriole Warbler, Pin-tailed Whydah, Red-billed Quelea, Western Grey Plantain Eater, Red-billed and African Grey Hornbills. As the light faded we saw two huge Verreaux’s Eagle Owls, what a bird to finish a super day on!

On 1st December we headed back to the coast, Banjul and our lovely hotel which we were looking forward to after four nights of basic accommodation upriver. As it was such a long drive back we didn’t do a huge amount of birding on the journey but did have great views of massive Marabou Storks and again marvelled at a Bateleur along with a lovely Bruce’s Green Pigeon that posed for the cameras. Back in Banjul we chilled out by the lovely pool with a gin and tonic and took in all that we had seen upriver.

It was suddenly our last full day in The Gambia and we headed south towards the border with Senegal. Here we birded around areas of freshwater pools behind the beach which were busy with birds. Large numbers of White-faced Whistling Ducks were on the pools and careful checking through them produced other species, three lovely tiny African Pygmy Geese, a Knob-billed Duck and three Northern Shoveler, all new for the trip. The small fields here were home to stunning Northern Red Bishops which posed in the sunshine, what a fantastic bird. On the nearby beach we found a rare White-fronted Plover amongst Kentish Plovers. It was a stunning place and we had the whole beach to ourselves.

Northern Red Bishop Gambia Iain Campbell

The spectacular Northern Red Bishop - photo by Iain Campbell taken on our tour.

Another short boat trip took us into a mangrove area where we had lunch by a creek that held waders, terns and gulls. On the way back to the hotel we called in at the pools again and had a real stroke of luck, two Northern Carmine Bee-eater swooped low over the water – what superb birds! Pink and turquoise as the sun lit them up, we were in heaven watching these birds! That evening we enjoyed a super meal at our hotel and toasted a great trip.

red colobus monkey Gambia

On our last morning we enjoyed watching red colobus monkeys.

On our last morning we had a little time for more birding before heading for the airport. At a nature reserve we watched Western Bluebill, Violet Turaco, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher and African Paradise Flycatcher and more! We also had great views of red colobus monkeys and Nile crocodile.

Sadly, we said goodbye to Tijan and flew back to the UK happy with our sightings of Egyptian Plovers and over 245 other species of birds!

Huge thanks to Alexia, Glenn, Sarah-Jane, Iain, Simon and Niki for their great company and help to make this bird-filled trip so much fun!

We would love you to join our Birdwatching Trips please check out our “Tours” page for details of all our trips. If you have any questions at all, please just fire away here……

We look forward to enjoying great birds and great fun with you soon!

Charlestown The Gambia sunrise 1

Sunrise over the River Gambia, a beautiful tranquil scene.

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