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The Gambia 2019


Dave Williams

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Dave Williams

Yep, me again. Talk about repeat visits, it's beginning to get boring I'm sure so this time I have tried something a bit different which is I hope an attempt to enlighten you a little bit more about what a visit to The Gambia entails. I know several people have been as a result of reading my TR's, I just hope they were not expecting too much more than my previous reports might not have suggested. I try to give an honest appraisal but it is very much a case of personal preferences on several issues.

Anyway, here I go!

 

Incidentally, I copy my TR's from my Google Blog. They are actually easier to read on ST as they appear in chronological order. In this particular case the first page was written some time previously to the second one, during which time the prospect of continuing to write had seemed a tiresome task. The weather here in the UK has taken a turn for the worst and from stunning spring warmth and sunshine we have been plunged back in to colder weather than we have experienced all winter. I can see snow on the hills here in North Wales. As a result I haven't ventured out and took to my keyboard instead.:huh:

The Gambia 2019.jpg

Edited by Dave Williams
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Dave Williams

We hadn't specifically planned to return to The Gambia this winter but I always keep an eye out for a good deal and when we spotted 2 weeks at our favourite Gambian hotel we thought "Why not!"

At a similar price to our first visit almost 10 years ago it certainly was a good deal. Current exchange rates were not dissimilar to our last visit at around 63-4 dalasai to the pound but we noticed a rise in some prices, particularly drinks and as a fair proportion of our budget is spent in this direction it made a noticeable difference. A pint of draught beer was 200d in the hotel across the road, a 330ml Julbrew 110d in our hotel bar, or 70d in their shop. Elsewhere you could still find a cheaper price  particularly during"Happy hour(s)" where the price dropped to 60d.

The Gambia is an attractive proposition purely on the weather, particularly at the time we went. You are hardly likely to see rain as the dry season is well under way, perfect for sunbathing and escaping the British winter, not quite so good for bird watching and photography as it turned out.

One of the other benefits is it's not too far to travel either, the flight takes approximately 6.5 hours from Manchester flying with Thomas Cook. However, having booked this holiday based on attractive flight departure times 4 weeks before we were due to tavel we received an email to say that the times had changed.Instead of a 1610hrs arrival, it was now 1940hrs. Even worse, instead of arriving home at Manchester at 2335hrs we would now land at 0330hrs  instead. Ah well, we'd worry about that later!

The outward flight was fine but by the time we were delivered to the Bakotu Hotel it was past 2100hrs and at reception we were given the news they didn't have a room for us for the first night, instead we'd have to put up with one of their self catering apartments 100m or so down the road.

Not a lot you can say about that but we were promised a move the next day so it just meant we couldn't really unpack, so it was drop everything and find somewhere to eat before last orders.

Reporting back to reception the following morning after breakfast we were told we'd be allocated a room after 1.00pm. Ah well.

I headed off with my camera down to Kotu Bridge where the bird guides hang out and others gather to see what's about. Claire made use of the apartments private balcony.

Down on the bridge I was immediately aware of some changes. I have never seen so many birds fishing around the bridge at the same time.


The fishing fleet.


There were at least 40-50 Long-tailed Cormorants

Long-tailed Cormorant   Microcarbo africanus

and there were more arriving by the minute!

Never before have I seen so many Pink-backed Pelicans in the creek either and they too were joining in the fishing fleet.

Pink-backed Pelican  Pelecanus rufescens

There certainly seemed to be plenty of fish about, the Cormorants were popping up everywhere with their bills filled.

Long-tailed Cormorant   Microcarbo africanus

It made for some interesting photo opportunities even if the species are ones I have seen before.

Long-tailed Cormorant   Microcarbo africanus

Just for the record, and for my Photo Big Year where I'm trying to photograph more species than last year I snapped some of the usual subjects like the Western Reef Egret

Western Reef-egret  Egretta gularis

but one bird in particularly grabbed my attention.

Yellow-billed Stork!

Yellow-billed Stork   Mycteria ibis

I'd only ever seen one before and that was a juvenile on passage many years ago so I was delighted to see this one. One of the guides told me that they were regulars so I wasn't too concerned that I only had my smaller 100-400mm zoom lens as the bird was a good distance, maybe 200m away. I would catch up with one later...I hoped!

Meantime it was a visit to the vulture feeding site nearby. I wasn't interested in the feeding, far too many birds to isolate one for a half decent snap, however, as they pre-empt the 10.30hrs feeding time they start to arrive individually so a bit of fun getting flight shots.

Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus

They are not the most photogenic species though!

Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus

Quite the opposite in fact!

Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus

Still they proved an interesting subject for the time being!

Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus

It was getting hotter by the minute and the sun was getting too bright for photography too so I wandered back to see if our room in the main hotel was ready which eventually it was.

A nice surprise too!

The Bakotu is only a 3* hotel but it's ideally placed with good birding on the doorstep as well as easy access to local restaurants and the beach. They'd improved to rooms too!

Bakotu hotel, Kotu, The Gambia.

Comfortable mattress toppers now on the beds

Bakotu hotel, Kotu, The Gambia.

Plenty of space for everything and best of all a new bathroom with a very sophisticated shower too!

Bakotu hotel, Kotu, The Gambia.

It was worth waiting for after all even if the first day was largely disrupted waiting to unpack.

TBC

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Dave Williams

Well, I have been home for almost 2 weeks and largely preoccupied with other things so I have decided the second instalment of my blog will be a bit more of a generalisation of what you might expect if you were to visit The Gambia rather than a day to day account.

I must warn you, not everybody is as fond of the place as I am. In the past it has developed a reputation for many negatives, particularly aggressive "bumsters", the locals who try to latch on to you, befriend you, get you to give them business , money, your email address or just about most things you can think of! In general I noted this time that most genuine beach sellers, fruit sellers, etc were not nearly as pushy as they used to be, They are at last perhaps realising that this can be a negative tactic not just for their business but repeat tourism too.

As a long term tourist I have become pretty immune but I do occasionally fall foul to a "bumster" tactic. Walking along I was approached by three guys and made the mistake of stopping to talk! They told me they were a band and that they needed to raise some money to buy a new skin for their drum. I said I'd come and watch them play if they were performing locally and would put something in their collection pot...the normal practice as they tout their trade around various bars etc. A proffered handshake was accepted by me and in doing so one of them slipped a band on my wrist telling me that I was now a brother and all that crap. Now give us some money! I told them I don't carry money when out with my camera and they said they'd be waiting around when I returned. I didn't as it happened, I took a circular route that meant I didn't pass them again. Next day I went the opposite way and they were on me like a shot telling me I was now their brother they had waited as I'd promised to buy them a new skin and that now we could head to the market to get one( a taxi ride somewhere). I told them that there was no way I had promised them anything and just walked away with them following me, badgering me in public. They told me I had accepted the band on my wrist and I had to honour my promise. I just ignored them and walked in to the hotel where I retrieved the band which I had taken off the day before. Next time I walked past when I reached the ring leader I stopped, looked him in the eye, tossed the band at him and staying nothing , walked on to the forlorn cry of "what about some money for the boys"!

I tell the story in detail just to give an idea of what you may find yourself up against. Some might find it very off putting, I can still get irritated but I'm used to it.

Stay away from the beach, the streets and wander off in to the local fields and no one bothers you.

That's why I keep going back. It's a birding hotspot right on the doorstep if you choose Kotu. I managed to photograph 92 species within a 10 minute walking distance of the hotel and also managed to miss one or two as well!

This year though our visit was later in the season, drier and the Kotu Creek was behaving differently than it has done in the past. 

The creek is completely tidal, there isn't any fresh water stream running in to it although as the tide goes out there appears to be a river running out of it as it drains back to the sea. Over the years I have been visiting I have seen this "river" altering course and then seen the efforts to divert it away from undermining an adjacent hotel. This time the problem was that it wasn't draining properly at all.

Kotu Creek   The Gambia

As the sand piles up the water can no longer escaped and the water becomes polluted with  amongst other things, the sewerage that runs in to it. Not nice! A team set about digging a trench to let the water both in and out. It seemed to work anyway and the large mud flat did get a shallow cover of water at high tide.

One of the negatives were that there were less waders than usual until the change was completed then suddenly we had a return of the Senegal thick-knee in bigger numbers

Senegal Thick-knee   Burhinus senegalensis

and the Yellow-wattled Lapwings returned from the golf course where they had previously been trying to feed.

Yellow-wattled Lapwing   Vanellus malabaricus

There were some usual suspects  I didn't spot at all, Grey Plover for example, but perhaps they were already heading north for the breeding season. Osprey was another that might too be on the way north. Where I missed out on some I made up for it with others.

I have never seen so many Pink-backed Pelicans, 

Pink-backed Pelican   Pelecanus rufescens

Long-Tailed Cormorants 

Long-tailed Cormorant   Microcarbo africanus

and Black Herons 

Black Heron   Egretta ardesiaca

to say nothing of the Spoonbills, both African 

African Spoonbill

and Eurasian ones,

Eurasian Spoonbill   Platalea leucorodia

all feeding together but using individual techniques to catch the fish that seems to be in greater number than ever probably as they were trapped.

It was a brilliant opportunity to get some decent photos, well by my standards anyway.

There was one star of the show though for me, the Yellow-billed Stork.

Yellow-billed Stork  Mycteria ibis

This a species I had only ever seen one of many years ago, and that a juvenile too, so these were a massive find in more senses than one and right here in the Creek too!

Yellow-billed Stork  Mycteria ibis

The only problem with all these birds was getting down to their level.

Yellow-billed Stork  Mycteria ibis

With the thick glutinous stinking mud around the waters edges it was best to stay out of it.

Still I didn't do too badly!

TBC

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Dave Williams

In part three of my report I thought it might help prospective visitors in their decision as to whether The Gambia might appeal. Let's face it from a birding prospective you can't go wrong with as many as 576 different species having been recorded there in the past.At the right time of year, which for those of us who are European means escaping winter, it's a perfect mix of both West African and over wintering Western Palearctic species.

So how do you decide where to go, who to go with and in what mode ?

You can spend a small fortune or you can go on a budget. You can choose an escorted tour or you can take the cheapest package and DIY everything.

On my most recent trip I paid the princely sum of £1056 for 2 weeks B&B ( Thomas Cook holidays) for two people.Wife Claire and myself. Claire isn't very interested in bird watching and why should she be. She's happy enjoying the sun and a good book. The hotel we use has long been a base for the renowned BBC presenter Chris Packham's escorted tours although he only stays there for a few nights nowadays preferring to base himself on the more isolated ( and expensive) Mandina Lodges. 

Let's look first at accommodation.

The two main tourist areas are based around Kololi and Kotu on the coast. Over the last 10 years or so I have witnessed that there is more and more development between the two and eventually I expect them to be one big resort but that is a long way off at the moment. The good news is that there are more quality hotels being built for those that want them, standards are being raised but development comes at a cost. The Senegambia Hotel was once THE birding hotel and some tours still base themselves there which is in my mind a huge mistake. I stayed for a couple of nights a few years ago. It's a big noisy hotel, the once bird rich gardens are no longer so and the nearby Bijilo nature reserve has been largely destroyed to build a huge conference centre. It's not for me but others might disagree. The advantage of Kololi is the number of alternative bars and restaurants to choose compared to say Kotu, but it comes at a price in as much as I personally think the whole area is tacky. Again, my subjective view. The Kairaba hotel on the other hand is right next door and it comes with an excellent reputation  though I have no first hand experience other than a wander in their garden.

Kotu on the other hand gives you access to far more undeveloped land without the need for transport even. The creek cannot be developed for obvious reasons but there is evidence that some of the adjoining land, particularly that next to the sea which is being built on, could be lost in the future as it's being fenced off and cultivated. Even the local sewerage plant has undergone an amazing change. Once a disgusting health hazard to humans but a magnet to birds it now looks more like a series of boating lakes almost inviting enough to take a swim in. ( I didn't go too close!!)

Away from the coast there are various options to stay, Mandina Lodges is just one  example. I have stayed at the delightful Farakunku Lodges too... but they both have one thing in common. Isolation, which in turn means that your choices are extremely limited, non existent even when it comes to eating in different places locally. Maybe that's maybe fine, you can only judge when you have tried it. Despite the more luxurious surrounds I personally prefer the ability to choose different surrounds with ease.

If you venture further inland and take a trip up river I am afraid that as far as I'm aware you will be roughing it no matter how much you have paid for your trip. Accomodation is very basic to say the least but for an ardent birder the sacrifice is worthwhile but not one I would shell out unnecessary payment for either.

So let's get on to price and what do you get for your money! Oh, and why do people pay it too?

The standard of accommodation is the obvious one but it's not always the reason that the trip was chosen. I was sat by the restaurant area waiting for an early pick up to go out on a trip when a newly arrived guest , spotting my camera gear, came and introduced himself as a fellow wildlife photographer ( I don't elevate myself to that level, sounds too professional!) He told me he had a big lens too but had left it at home from a safety issue. Instead he'd brought a smaller more discreet lens that could be hidden from view. 

His first question was "is it safe?"

My response "absolutely!"

I have never felt in any way threatened from a safety point of view.

I ascertained he had pre booked his trip before leaving the UK. His package holiday was with tour operator "Gambia Experience" and they now handle Chris Packham's tours too as an add on. You can see what they cost if you choose to investigate and they are not cheap. What do you get? In this instance the opportunity to rub shoulders with a celebrity if that's your thing. The guy I was talking to though had missed that tour instead was just using Mr Packham's recommended guide. I estimate that there is at least a 25% surcharge over the going rate for these trips but there you go. Ignorance is bliss.

You can book a specialist guided trip which again will cost you say £2500 pp for a shorter trip than the one we were taking recently at 20% of that price but without the organised daily trips. Guides are widely available, in fact there is a surplus of good guides and they are all desperate for your business too, when you arrive. I personally don't want to pay for a tour escort who in turn hires one of these guides anyway. Not only that I won't be in a large group either so I can dictate where I want to go and how long I stay for. To make things less expensive I can find someone to share a trip with, perhaps someone I have already met and spoken to and won't be surprised when they are on my trip. I estimate that if I had taken a personal guide for all 14 days of my stay I would have paid no more than £2500 plus the cost of evening meals that the tours do tend to include but that would have been for two people not one.

One of the biggest disadvantages of these specialist trips is that if you happen to have a disinterested partner you still pay the full amount to take her along ( point me in the right direction if I'm wrong) but why pay top whack for someone who doesn't join you on the trips each day? Your tour group might be quite big, I believe Chris Packam's tour had as many as 16 people on them. Not ideal bird watching in my opinion.


As I previously stated though, there is no right or wrong choice, just personal preference. We all have different circumstances to consider. All I am saying is that you shouldn't be afraid of DIY trips. Do a bit of research. Read trip reports and use the likes of Trip Advisor online to get a feel for where you are going and what to expect.

In my next post I'll get back to what I found to be the case on my most recent trip.

TBC

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Dave Williams

In the last post I tried to point out some of the options you have when deciding on a trip to The Gambia, now I'll share mine!

As a frugal pensioner who wants to spread my travel pound as far as I can comfortably push it my usual port of call for The Gambia is a package tour as the country is small, most places are in easy reach and I can find an attractive price for the basic holiday. What I then add on to that is at my own, I'll rephrase that there are two of us, our own discretion. Where and what to eat, where and how much to spend on drinks, whether or not to take any tours or trips. 

This time I went with an open mind. I think I might have spent 2 weeks in Kotu in the past without ever venturing out on a trip, there again I have also paid a premium for a 10 day birding trip largely pre-organised, or even just a shorter one organised through a guiding contact I keep in touch with online. On my last visit I teamed up with a couple of guys I'd met in our hotel and took a couple of trips which, divided by three, worked out very reasonably priced.

As a rule of thumb, the guides try to get £100 for a full day trip that includes transport, £70 for a half day trip but supply and demand will indeed dictate what they get. Newcomers may well pay the whole fee and they are responsible for setting the bar fairly high in a country where the average wage is only a few pounds a month, never mind a day. Some would argue that a guide's season is limited, they have knowledge etc etc. Ok, whatever. Whichever way you look at it, a good guide gets paid extremely well but it also has to be pointed out that sometimes they have extended family to support too and I am happy to help inject some financial support in to the local economy.

This last occasion, as per usual I was approached by a guide who I haven't used before but know him from sight. Touting for business I said I would wait until I found someone to share the cost before deciding, but salesman as he was, he gave me another guest's name from our hotel who was in the same position. I sought out Laurence and together we agreed to take a trip with said guide at a price of £70 for the half day trip. As we were both in to photography as much as listing ticks we stressed that we wanted somewhere suitable for such.

Off we went and the first place we visited was a large dusty field on the edge of Farasutu woods in search of Black-headed Lapwing. I have been to similar places in the past, I had told this guide exactly what I expected and this was not the place I wanted to be. We were getting distant views and the Lapwings were constantly on the move to get away from us!

Black-headed Lapwing   Vanellus tectus.

A record shot but no more. The guide was hostile to my observation that this wasn't what I had asked for!

We continued walking, something else I had asked to avoid as I continue my recuperation from a recent spinal operation, especially as I was carrying a fair weight of camera and lens.

In one of the bushes we past we saw and managed photographs of a Black-crowned Tchagra

Black-crowned Tchagra   Tchagra senegalus

We spotted African Harrier -hawk flying

African Harrier Hawk   Polyboroides typus

and had a Woodchat Shrike on a farm building.

Woodchat Shrike   Lanius senator

These were all the only ones I saw during the whole holiday which was also the case when we arrived at a fruiting fig tree that held numerous birds including Bruce's Green Pigeon.

Bruce's Green-pigeon   Treron waalia

and nearby another tree held a lifer for me, Pied Swallow.

Pied-winged Swallow   Hirundo leucosoma

and down on the ground, yet another lifer, Singing Cisticola.

Singing Cisticola  Cisticola cantans

Those two I would have overlooked had it not been for the guide too.

Back in the fig tree, one of only two sightings of Cardinal Woodpecker ( the other on my next trip) and that did give some super close up and interesting views as it attacked a fig!

Cardinal Woodpecker   Dendropicos fuscescens

What's he complaining about you might ask!

Cardinal Woodpecker   Dendropicos fuscescens

And perhaps you are correct, in fact more so when you see what came next!

The highlight of the trip was meant to be the two owls we were about to see. The guide took us into the edge of the forest and before reaching the first Owl we stopped where he pointed out Senegal Eremomela.

Senegal Eremomela  Eremomela pusilla

which I should have managed to photograph better ( over exposed as you can see) even if they were my best attempts to date. The Western Bonelli's Warbler on the other hand was virtually impossible to get a clear view of but I have never managed any photo before!

Western Bonelli's Warbler   Phylloscopus bonelli

The Greyish Eagle Owl however, was much as expected. Asleep and obscured!

Greyish Eagle-Owl   Bubo cinerascens

Next it was into the Farasutu reserve proper, another 50 dalasai which is less than a pound was requested for the entry fee ( why the guide doesn't include I don't know) and we are passed on to the local guide who took us to see the African Wood Owl.

African Wood Owl   Strix woodfordii

Another sleeping beauty! 

Now from previous experience I know that we were very close to a well known site for White-backed Night Heron where I have been taken to on a separate tour by the same guide despite him taking me to see the said Owl. That's how some of them work. They have special birds that they think will make the sale of the trip.

On this trip it wasn't the Owls I was sold on, it was the promise of Yellow-throated Longclaw which was to be our last port of call. First though we were taken back to where we had picked up the forest guide where there are a few seats, some watering holes( bowls of water) and the opportunity to eat our packed breakfasts as provided by the hotel. Again, from a purely photographic point of view not ideal because of distance to the subject, poor light and rather artificial set up.

Again though, they delivered.

Blue-spotted Wood-dove   Turtur afer

Blue-spotted Wood-dove

Black-necked Weaver  Ploceus   Nigricollis brachypterus

Black-necked Weaver pair as well as the only Orange-cheeked Waxbill of my holiday.

Orange-cheeked   Waxbill     Estrilda melpoda

The same applied to Klaas's Cuckoo which I managed to capture before it landed on the edge of a white plastic bowl.

Klaas's Cuckoo   Chrysococcyx klaas

and indeed a Stone Partridge too.

Stone Partridge   Ptilopachus petrosus

What on earth is he complaining about you may well ask?! That's already 16 species not seen anywhere else and one more to come and in fairness I agree to a large extent but you also have to remember that I'm lucky enough that my equipment is as good as it gets really so I am better equipped than most to take advantage over poor light and distance.

Our final visit was to that Longclaw site, and after a brief walk around some cultivated fields we were told it wasn't there today. We did get a compensatory Grey Kestrel though.... albeit at distance.

Grey Kestrel  Falco ardosiaceus

I later discovered the Longclaw hasn't apparently been seen all season!

TBC

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Dave Williams

Well, from the last post you might well wonder what the next trip might be and how dissatisfied could I be with that!

I have to admit, we photographers are never happy, We always want to improve on a previous best image of a particular species. That's why we often try time and time again for then same species that are common at home. I have always maintained though that an interesting shot of a common species is better than a shot of a rare bird sat on a branch. The same can be said when on holiday too although it's always nice to add new species to your portfolio, home or abroad.

As with all wildlife photography there can be no guarantees that you will see anything, never mind get a photograph. Hides and guides will help though and if you are abroad your time is limited so short cuts are welcome and a guide will certainly stand you a much better chance of seeing more species.

In The Gambia though the concept of a bird hide is one that as yet has barely been tried. The trade in photography tourism is on the rise across the whole globe as what was once unaffordable equipment is now available to amateur hands like myself.

On this particular trip I took Canon 1DX11 and 5D1V  bodies, a 100-400mm zoom and 500mm f4 prime lens along with teleconverters and an expensive tripod and head. Added together you could buy a family car for the cost of purchasing them brand new! My choice of how to spend my life savings!! You could however come close to the same fire power for much much less.

For my second trip I teamed up with another person I already knew , again someone I'd met at the Bakotu hotel a couple of years previously but kept in touch with. He'd already been on an "up river" trip and had a day at a specific location that when he described it I was keen to try. Off we went with a different guide and one I have used in the past for an agreed price of £50 for the half day tour. An hour or so's drive found us about 100m beyond the spot I'd been to a couple of days previously to view the Owls. Maybe guide Number 1 hasn't a clue this place even exists?

From a guiding point of view , there wasn't much need although the expert eyes were very helpful. These local guides seem to have much better eyesight than we do, maybe genetics I don't know but I am often amazed at what they pick out that I haven't seen.

The place itself was interesting and a definite step in the right direction from a photographic point of view but it was far from the finished article. A large garden with several more pots of water as well as a much bigger water hole which may well have been an irrigation aid for the garden . Whatever, it did attract birds to both, the light was much better but we were still some distance from our subjects. A simple screen would hide our presence to enable much closer views.

Nevertheless I got to take photographs of some more species seen just the once during the holiday.

African Pygmy  Kingfisher  Ispidina picta

African Pygmy Kingfisher was a superb find and one only seen twice in the past.

Melodious Warbler   Hippolais polyglotta

Melodious Warbler gave me my best shots ever as did the Greater Honeyguide.

Greater Honeyguide Indicator indicator

Although in truth I saw that two days before as well on my other guided trip.

The same could almost be said of the Lesser Honeyguide. I saw one locally to the hotel but it was extremely brief and my photo was a write off.

Lesser Honeyguide   Indicator minor

The other Honeyguide was indeed a "lifer" and again not seen elsewhere.

Spotted Honeyguide · Indicator maculatus

That's the Spotted Honeyguide which didn't offer the best of photo opportunities, again, distance being a major problem too.

To make up the collection of bird species seen here and nowhere else I could add.

Snowy-crowned Robin-chat

Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat   Cossypha niveicapilla

Lavendar Waxbill

Lavender Waxbill   Estrilda caerulescens

and Black-rumped Waxbill

Black-rumped Waxbill    Estrilda troglodytes

and if I'm honest I suppose I could have tried for better photos had I not been distracted by more attractive ( to me) species as I have photographed them in similar circumstances in the past.

To make up the days sightings I had Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, one I usually see in Kotu but not this time.

Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu  Uraeginthus bengalus

and another pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers but with less photographic opportunity than the previous trip.So there again though, a guided trip had paid off . Between the two half days I had added 25 species I wouldn't see at Kotu.

A combined price of £60. Not bad but for reasons I can't really explain I decided not to bother with any more trips and stay local. It wasn't just the money side, it was about having breakfast with my wife instead of deserting her to eat alone when I set off at the crack of dawn. It was about the expectation of not seeing much I hadn't seen already and yet these two previous trips had indeed served up several "lifers". I think part of it was about keeping something for next time because as always, I know I will return.

TBC

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Game Warden

@Dave Williams can you edit a pic into your first post so it will show up on the Latest Trip reports ticker?

 

Thanks, Matt

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Dave Williams
9 minutes ago, Game Warden said:

@Dave Williams can you edit a pic into your first post so it will show up on the Latest Trip reports ticker?

 

Thanks, Matt

Hastily chosen and executed before my edit time is up!!

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TonyQ

I am enjoying reading this Dave - and wonderful pictures.

When we went we stayed at Kairaba and really enjoyed it, but we also visited the Kotu Hotel and thought it looked really nice - and it is well positioned.

We organised our own guide and were very happy with him. I think The Gambia is a great place for people interested in birds to visit in the winter.

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kittykat23uk

Great report so far Dave! The Gambia is a place I've often considered yet never been to. Mostly due to the lack of mammals to be seen. Although the bird life is quite something. 

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Atravelynn

Great bird shots.  Nothing looked over exposed to me. Sorry about the "band" of brothers.  A small price to pay for your great birding.  What delicate little creatures those Lavendar Waxbills.

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Dave Williams

So, my mind was made up, well almost, not to bother taking any more trips, I'd concentrate on what was about locally and that of course changes not only from year to year and time of year but from day to day. Birds are territorial so the more you are familiar with an area the more chance of seeing what lives there and no matter where you visit, never judge it on first appearances.

For me a typical day started around 7.15 to 7.30am. That's first light really, well, when the light is acceptable for photography anyway. 

Kotu dawn

As I am not fond of getting up earlier than needed it suited me fine.The Bakotu Hotel backs on to the mudflats of the creek and the golf course and a handy back gate takes you there.

At 7.30 am it's hardly likely that there is anyone playing golf so no need to worry about stray balls either, a bit different on the way back.

Head up to the nearest green, they are actually black and made of compacted sand, and at this time of day you might be surprised at what you see.

Not an eagle but a birdie shot! This Yellow-billed Kite had a plan!

Yellow-billed Kite

I think it took a fancy to the flag for nesting material.

Yellow-billed Kite

but the best efforts to tear it off the pole failed.

Yellow-billed Kite

It attempted to fly off with the whole thing but despite getting it off the ground failed to get airborne. I was really annoyed I'd put the camera down!

Carry on across the golf course and you drop on to a bridge that takes you across the creek, and on to one of the golf tees.

Kotu Creek

It's one of the places you can use to avoid going in to the mud in an attempt to get a shot of something, in this case a couple of guys fishing.

Kotu Creek

The local bird guide association claim that the creek is much better as a result of the fact they now control it and have stopped fishing. Not so, these guys get up early, and who can blame them. Earning a crust isn't easy and they were catching fish by the big bucket load and enough to feed lots of hungry mouths too. What amazed me is they enter the water fully clothed , trainers as well. Must be awful walking home like that.

Anyway, looking back you can now see the golf course.

Kotu Creek

but carry on, a swift right turn and you find your way towards the sewerage ponds, the rice paddies and everything else that signed as the "Nature Trail" if you enter from Kotu Bridge.

Much depended on what I saw and where as to how far I went.

On the very first morning I was delighted to stumble across a Double-spurred Francolin wandering across the path right in front of me. I fired off some shots and was delighted as I have struggled to get a decent view and image in the past however, in the course of the week I got even better ones as the light was better!

Double-spurred Francolin   Pternistis bicalcaratus

They included the standard view...one that's running away!

Double-spurred Francolin  Pternistis bicalcaratus

Shows off the spurs well when in retreat!

Every day was different though, some days better than others.

Typically though an early walk was followed by a later breakfast with Claire at around 9.30 when the usual earlier rush had died down. It was then a decision as whether to go back out, check out what I'd taken on the laptop or a combination of both.

TBC

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xelas

Although I have read your blog, @Dave Williams, this one is an excellent piece filled with useful info and excellent photos. I have no idea why are you complaining about distance as what you are showing us, even if they are heavily cropped, the image quality is top notch. 

 

Mentioning tripod, how often have you used it? 

 

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Dave Williams
1 hour ago, xelas said:

Although I have read your blog, @Dave Williams, this one is an excellent piece filled with useful info and excellent photos. I have no idea why are you complaining about distance as what you are showing us, even if they are heavily cropped, the image quality is top notch. 

 

Mentioning tripod, how often have you used it? 

 

 

Much depends on what you want to do with the end result Alex. Heavily cropped shots lose a lot of detail.

I only used the tripod on three occasions from what I recall. I took it on both trips and it was useful at both places were we were at the watering stations, particularly the first trip where the light wasn't good and I was using a shutter speed of 1/40- 1/60th so not possible for me to hand hold my 500mm at that setting.

I felt guilty as it was a last minute change of mind to take it and it meant having to ditch one or two things to make up the weight allowance which is fairly meagre on Thomas Cook flights.

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Dave Williams

So, with a lot of time to search the local area what did I end up with?

I'm not going to post too many shots of the likes of species I have seen before, after all I recorded something in the region of 100 species on camera. Instead I'll share the special ones.

Early in the first week I was out early and met a bird guide and his client who were happy to share their sighting, a Striped Kingfisher,

Striped Kingfisher   Halcyon chelicuti

I later found out that there were supposedly 2 in the area so I looked several times and found one of them anyway.This was a Kotu first for me and I was able to get my best shots of the species ever.

Striped Kingfisher    Halcyon chelicuti

Another Kotu first, and a special bird was a Little Bittern.

Little Bittern  Ixobrychus minutus

It was pretty furtive, refusing to come out to the edge of the mangroves.

Little Bittern  Ixobrychus minutus

It was only the third time I have ever seen one so very pleasing to see it at all, especially as it disappeared altogether the last week I was there.

While I was sat waiting for the Little Bittern to appear a Grey Woodpecker paid a visit to a dead tree stump.

Grey Woodpecker  Dendropicos goertae

giving some excellent views but it was one seen quite often in several spots.

Grey Woodpecker  Dendropicos goertae

The Fine -spotted Woodpecker pair were even more obliging on one morning walk.

Fine-spotted Woodpecker   Campethera Punctuligera

I had them both on the same stalk

Fine-spotted Woodpecker   Campethera Punctuligera

Another bird that gave me possibly my best ever shots was a Giant Kingfisher that I found sat on an old bridge support.

Giant Kingfisher   Megaceryle maxima

but one I didn't bother with at all really was the Pied Kingfisher

Pied Kingfisher  Ceryle rudis

I, like most who visit had overdosed on the species in the past so ignored them until the last day when  I added to the 4 shots I already had, one of a bird with fish. You can't really go home without one can you? It's such an easy shot to get in TG though, unlike the Kingfishers we have in the U.K. where you are lucky to get a shot at all.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

Note the African Spoonbill legs in the background!!

Getting decent shots of Sunbirds isn't easy, well maybe the Beautiful Sunbird isn't too bad.

Beautiful Sunbird  Cinnyris pulchellus

but I was really annoyed with myself for messing up an opportunity with this Splendid Sunbird. Probably the best I have ever managed but could have been soo much better. Sat still, OK, I'm hand holding a 500mm and the bird is in deep, deep shade but did I really need a shutter speed of 1/2000th? No! It pushed the ISO up to 10,000.

Splendid Sunbird   Cinnyris coccinigastrus

I was too busy checking the exposure to notice what settings I had. Never mind.

One of my best finds though were some Grey-backed Camaroptera that were holding territory in a distant corner that I have never ventured to before. They are easy to hear but hard to photograph as they move around in the scrubby bushes. It took me two mornings work to get these

Grey-backed Camaroptera   Camaroptera brevicaudata

but I was a happy tog as a result.

Grey-backed Camaroptera   Camaroptera brevicaudata

There is one bird that I never tire of seeing and photographing and on this trip I think I did better than ever.

Greater Painted Snipe    Rostratula benghalensis

They are stunning little birds but are very shy too.

Greater Painted Snipe    Rostratula benghalensis

The local bird guides put a lot of time and effort in to building a special hide to view them and so it's with a sense of bemusement, disappointment, bewilderment...you name it... but they have allowed it to fall in to total disrepair.

They even laid a 50m or so footpath made of old car tyres filled with what is now compacted mud that's as hard as concrete that allows a passage through the black slimy mud .

So much hard work and yet it has all been wasted, well not quite. The footpath was a great aid still and although the hide doesn't offer much camouflage it's still a great spot to see the Snipe. I went three times in all, two were pretty much no shows, in fact the first visit drew a total blank but I glad I tried again because the second visit was the most spectacular I have had.

Greater Painted-snipe   Rostratula benghalensis

So in finishing this report all I can say is if you have never been I don't think you'll be disappointed. There are now hotels to cover most tastes and budgets but think carefully when you choose. The tourist season runs from November through to April and when ever you go there will be plenty about. Will I return? I guess it's inevitable! When I'm looking for some winter sun and a cheap break it's the first port of call however, maybe it's time to explore a new base.We'll see.

Thanks for reading along, hope the information is of use.

Dave

Edited by Dave Williams
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kittykat23uk

Thanks for a great report Dave! Beautiful photography. :)

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xelas

@Dave Williams, what sites are you looking for getting an affordable option for The Gambia?

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Dave Williams

@xelas The options are fairly limited from a package point of view,Thomas Cook or The Gambia Experience here in the UK, and you can see what they have to offer in terms of accommodation by looking at their brochures. If you book flights and accommodation separately  how long you stay  makes a difference as it's often cheaper to take the package if your chosen accommodation features in a brochure as the flights are quite likely the ones you'd book anyway. If you want to stay longer than what the package tours offer, or look for somewhere to stay that's not in their brochure then flight only is the way to go.

The Gambia's tourist zone is fairly limited in size at the moment, further south along the coast is virtually undeveloped. There are one or two options where you can stay but they come with their own drawbacks to counter the beauty of having the place to yourself and no hassle from the locals. Limited options for food, maybe the hotel standards etc. are both worth thinking about. 

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xelas

Thanks, @Dave Williams! After being told to scrap quite many photos from SA, it looks like I need another visit to Africa :D.

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  • 3 weeks later...
Photo-Kiboko

Thank you @Dave Williams for all the informations and the photos.

Gambia is still a white spot for me, but I am sure I will go there some times.

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Peter Connan

There are several birds in this report that are on my "most wanted" list, and absolutely magnificent pictures they are too!

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