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The Gambia 2024...back yet again!


Dave Williams

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Dave Williams

I have just got back from "The Smiling Coast" after an absence of five years and before I went I did wonder what changes we might expect to see? It's 17 or 18 years since my first visit so inevitably things change but this time the changes were far more evident than ever before. More of that later.

I chose our usual favoured hotel, The Bakotu Hotel in Kotu. Somethings haven't changed a great deal and the Bakotu is fortunately one of them, well for most part anyway. Somethings have improved, especially the breakfast offering but for some reason they have decided to close the rear access that leads out on to the golf course, a decent bird watching spot , well it used to be anyway! The alternative route involves a long walk of maybe 30 minutes so a bit of an inconvenience.

Since our trip in 2019 Thomas Cook have folded and now TUI have taken over along with The Gambia Experience. Flying from Gatwick the later use Titan Airways, flying from Manchester they use TUI so I see little point in paying a premium to fly on the same plane and stay at the same hotel by choosing to book through Gambia Experience.A typical example is a 2 week trip for 2 people departing on the 13th of November this year will cost £2040 with TUI or £2730 with G.Ex. If you really want to push the boat out why not include a guided birdwatching holiday with Megan McGubbin.

Screenshot2023-12-22at14_21.26copy2.jpg.35b7b13485c440cb898183692d3c34e3.jpg 

 

They haven't announced dates for next winter yet but there were about 16 people on this years tours. We happened to be there at the same time by sheer co-incidence.

Megan stayed on for a few extra days after the tour group went home and I have to say she's a very personable young lady and I had several conversations with her.

Would I pay the premium for a guided trip of 16 ? Absolutely not. Some folk are just star struck I guess, others just need the security of someone to do all the organising and feel perhaps there's a benefit to safety in numbers.Believe me, many people seem paranoid about the dangers. The Gambia is very safe and the Bakotu is a a safe place too. You don't need to bring all your expensive gear to breakfast with you. It will still be in your room when you get back!

So which did we choose? the answer is neither! Both tour companies seem reluctant to offer anything other than a 2 week package although I'm told you stand a better chance if you contact them by phone or shop.

I decided to DIY and booked the hotel directly and flew with TAP, Portugal's national airline. I paid £2100 in total for three weeks which included flights, more baggage allowance, in flight meals on the Lisbon to Banjul section plus the cost of taxi transfers each way.

There are of course some downsides to DIY if things go pear shaped but 3 weeks for the price of 2 was worth the risk.

How did it all work out? Not perfectly but not bad either. Our transfer time in Lisbon was a mere 40 minutes so there was an element of risk we might miss the connection, and even if we did make it, would our bags?

With adverse weather forecast we left home with plenty of time to spare, arrived at Manchester airport only to find TAP's check in desk didn't open until 2 hours before the flight was due whereas everyone else opens 3 hours before.That involved hanging around for an hour until the desk opened. There were only two girls operating the counters and when it came to my turn the girl was engaged in a conversation with her fellow worker discussing the VISA issues the passenger at the other check in point might have. My first opportunity to ask if she had put a fast tag on my bag came just as she sent it on its way. She assured me she had, but it turned out she hadn't. It took me to mention the 40 minute turn around which prompted her to fast tag the second bag. That made it, the other didn't! We were well prepared for the eventuality and it didn't inconvenience us other than I didn't have a hairbrush for three days! Then it was down to the baggage department at Banjul Airport who refuse to send out your luggage by taxi when it arrives, you have to fetch it . Half a day wasted then. Even worse, although I was prepared with luggage tags, my lost bag declaration from I received on arrival plus my passport for ID none of it was required. Just one person who happened to be on the phone when I arrived told me to go and search for my bag amongst a pile of at least 50. Having found it I reported back to her and she indicated I could go without further checking anything and carried on talking on the phone.

A week later I got an email message from the baggage department asking if I had collected my bag yet! Is it any wonder some bags disappear never to be seen again?

TAP have been the butt of jokes that the initials stand for "Take Another Plane" but I have to say they were let down by ground staff at either end. The flights were brilliant, a delayed take off of 25 minutes and they still made up the time to arrive at Lisbon when expected. A car was waiting at the bottom of the aircraft steps to take us to the steps of the plane for the onward flight. That was impressive! Would I use them again? Absolutely.

And as for The Gambia, would I go back again? I'm already planning it but with a totally different approach and plan.

Sadly local birding is not what it was. I guess the time of year makes a difference if even just by a few weeks. More development in the tourist zone has ruined some spots, and the ongoing problems with the beach and Kotu Creek meant that it was not able to flow freely until the sand blockage was removed. Consequently the water in the creek wasn't changed with the tides, the water remained in the creek and was stagnating especially as it is also a sewage outlet for some places it seems. After  a week there the problem was solved and the water changed with the tides again. There were signs that some new birds were starting to return to add to the usual suspects. None of this impacted too badly as far as I was concerned. I was happy to hang around the famous Kotu Creek bridge in anticipation of some birding action although I did take a few trips away from the tourist strip which I will report separately for this that might be interested.

TBC

 

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Dave Williams

We were  in The Gambia in 2016 when a Presidential election took place for which the incumbent president expected to win. When he didn't there was great jubilation in the streets at the prospect of a new beginning. The old president had taken power in a coup and had ruled in a dictatorial style. He decided he didn't like the result of the election and decided he was staying put and ordered the army to take control The neighbouring Senegal intervened and threatened to send in their much bigger army to make sure democracy was maintained. The old President got the message and flew out to a safe haven taking nearly all the country's wealth with him. Sadly, all these years later the majority of Gambians seem to regret the change of leadership as things haven't improved for most.

As an outsider looking in the most obvious change is the completion of a huge conference centre and construction of a major highway linking it to both the airport and to the capital Banjul. This highway is still under construction and until it's finished there is huge disruption to traffic in some places whilst in others it enables much faster communication. Presumably the conference centre being built in the tourist area among the hotels they are hoping to host many events but there doesn't seem to be much evidence of that. It was built with Chinese money and in return the Chinese got the fishing rights off the coast and no doubt other interests too.

I can see the huge potential for tourism but The Gambia must also recognise that it needs to preserve its natural areas too if it's to succeed in making itself a top winter destination for tourism. Currently it's not appearing to do that at all and in fact the conference centre was built on land that was previously a wildlife haven. Meantime allegations of corruption in government are rife, the people complain of a lack of law and order compared to the past although I have to say I still felt perfectly safe. Crime is though on the increase I believe but mainly not involving tourists. TG needs to watch out though because Senegal has big plans to boost their tourist industry too.

I am still very fond of The Gambia. The main attraction being there is no time difference to the UK and winter sun is guaranteed after a short 6 hour flight...unless you opt to fly indirectly.

Anyway, enough about The Gambia and more of my trip.

We had booked three weeks away and we were meeting up with friends we had made 18 months earlier on a trip to Senegal. They had booked TG on my recommendation as a birding destination. They were staying at a different hotel , their choice and they too were DIYing the trip.

On my recommendation they travelled for an overnight stay at Tendaba camp, one I didn't want to do alone  as there was no way o/h Claire would entertain a trip there based on my previous experience. The accommodation was dreadful but the birding excellent. 

Much to my surprise it seems new chalets have been built and they are now really nice in comparison.

What I had agreed though was that I would join them for a couple of half day trips with my recommended guide, Lamin who had also arranged their Tendaba trip too. We later added a third full day trip and did a self guided visit to a spot on the mouth of The Gambia river.

Screenshot2024-02-15at12_24.18copy.jpg.58bab6ec04d84c84ee3429bf2c0fe79a.jpg

 

 

The trips taken from our base in Kotu were 

1)Brufut woods

2)Farasutu 

3)Kartong

4)The Calypso Bar

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Dave Williams

At the beginning of this year I decided on a change of direction in my wildlife photography, no more Big Years, it was too time consuming and besides I was hoping to search for better shots than just gathering numbers. Having said that I'm still not averse to birds on sticks! My two birding companions are still very much in the gathering species mode and I hoped that my planned trips would deliver on both counts.

Brufut Woods, here we go!

My initial thoughts on arrival was how dreadful the place had become.It should be a wildlife haven close to the tourist belt but around the edge there is now a gigantic rubbish dump. Why would they allow that? Crazy.

The trip got off to a great start though. Our guide spotted this Klass's Cuckoo. Not easy considering the colours.

53529875777_153e50d595_h.jpgKlass's Cuckoo by Dave Williams, on Flickr

This was followed with a  Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, a great bird to see and strangely it sat motionless for much longer than is usual for the species. It was only when I looked at the photos when I got home I realised it only had one eye making hunting much more difficult I expect.

This was the good side!

53529875957_fd84272e3c_h.jpgRed-breasted Paradise Flycatcher by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The edges of the woods are excellent for Sunbirds and other small species.

Red-cheeked Cordon Blue and Copper Sunbird amongst many others.

53530769206_7fda69f22d_h.jpgRed-cheeked Cordon Bleu & Copper Sunbird by Dave Williams, on Flickr

I have to include this one as we reminisced about Monty Python's dead parrot sketch. Instead of a Norwegian Blue this is a Senegal Parrot pining for the fiords no doubt!

53530769156_8c5504851d_h.jpgSenegal Parrot by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Next up was a search for the Verraux Eagle Owl. A local guide took us to the viewing spot which was a fair distance away, 30-40m perhaps.

53531087899_71e7cb7bfe_h.jpgVerraux's Eagle Owl by Dave Williams, on Flickr

One of my friends really struggled to find it no matter how hard we tried to tell him where to look, he was getting very frustrated to the point of don't bother until he eventually spotted it to congratulations...and relief...all round.

Meanwhile his other half announced there was a Chameleon in the tree too. I told her not to be ridiculous, she couldn't see one that far away. defiantly she said there was and she had a photo to prove it too. Taken on her Sony bridge camera she produced this pin sharp perfect image. I suggested she was messing about with a photo from a different trip still on the memory card but she replied she'd just taken it but couldn't find it again.

I did though! 

Her camera had picked up the chameleon on an overhanging branch 3-4m away and she hadn't realised it was that close!

53530768971_1204969315_h.jpgChameleon by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Next up was the Standard Long-tailed Nightjar. Only one roosting this time but it has to be one of the most photographed birds in TG.

Brilliantly camouflaged it took me a good while to see it the first time I went there years ago but now I was on it straight away and surprisingly so was my friend who struggled with the Owl.

53529876067_79a169164d_h.jpgLong-tailed Nightjar by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The next hour and a half was spent sat at the watering station hoping to see a Turaco or two. Both Green and Violet ones frequent the place and they were both targets I wanted to see. 

Sadly it wasn't to be. Lots of Doves ,Bishops, Mannikins and Weavers both drinking and eating the seed put on the floor but nothing special. The only godsend was you can buy cold drinks while you waited so that was a relief from the intense heat.

The original plan had been to follow Brufut with a trip to Tanji beach but by now it was getting too late to do so we put that on hold for the time being.

If you have never been it's worth a visit otherwise I wouldn't bother , I won't be going back there that's for sure.

6/10 for birding, 4/10 for photography.

Edited by Dave Williams
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The Chameleon gets 8/10 :)! The eyes 20/20 :D!

Edited by xelas
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Dave Williams

The second guided tour I'd organised with my guide Lamin and my two birding friends was to Farasutu Woods, a place I'd visited several times before. I knew it was a good spot for Owls and the last time I went I'd been taken to a different bird hide , one I hadn't visited before and one that gave much better light for photography than the one on the edge of the woods.

A half day visit with Lamin was £25 pp , the same price as we had paid for Brufut a couple of days before.

We started by wandering the fields near to the woods, something I'm not that keen on because from a photographic point of view the subjects are usually distant and so it was today.

A Bearded Barbet 

53536584053_76c16a0809_h.jpgBearded Barbet by Dave Williams, on Flickr

and African Golden Oriole in the same tree.

53536400516_f46bed00cb_h.jpgAfrican Golden Oriole by Dave Williams, on Flickr

A distant Dark Chanting Goshawk in another.

53536399856_ab15553361_h.jpgDark-chanting Goshawk by Dave Williams, on Flickr

This Shrike was about 50m away and it's only due to the 45mp Canon R5 and 700mm of lens that got the shot!

53535520867_245bd261b1_h.jpgGreat Grey Shrike by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The guide called it a Southern Grey Shrike but I have my doubts, looks more like a Great Grey Shrike to me.

I had more photographic firepower than my two friends and I knew they would struggle more than me so I suggested we went to look at the Owls before anyone else arrived and possibly disturbed them.

There used to be two species roosting locally by one, the Brown Wood Owls, had moved on having been disturbed by the Patatas Monkeys that have arrived in the area. 

The Greyish Eagle Owls were showing well though so that was good.

53535521382_88041f4456_h.jpgGreyish Eagle Owl by Dave Williams, on Flickr

53536400061_afa9d1e403_h.jpg_G7A0473 copy by Dave Williams, on Flickr

We moved on to the woodland hide in the hope of sighting a Turaco but it was not to be. There were quite a few birds visiting the drinking trough and bowls but nothing particularly interesting and photography is challenging in the low light.

IMG_9322.jpeg.c2a06d3110a2f454ac3c0bb2c94592c9.jpeg

 

I suggested we move to the other hide which we did but not before checking a local spot where White-backed Heron have been known to roost.I'm not sure they still do but my local knowledge meant we at least checked it out and we dis see a huge Crocodile briefly before it vanished in to the nearby pool .

IMG_9328.jpeg.d88ca93af46c51fb83c2cbdd3df18b50.jpeg

 

Ironically the better lit hide brings in it's own challenges as when the sun gets brighter the birds are often half lit and half shaded but we did get some excellent birds.

Golden-tailed Woodpecker

53535522222_ada20158bb_h.jpgGolden-tailed Woodpecker by Dave Williams, on Flickr

A female Greater Honey Guide

53536824725_b69b9a27cf_h.jpgGreater Honeyguide. by Dave Williams, on Flickr

and Spotted Honeyguide too

53536399221_05299fb8f6_h.jpgSpotted Honeyguide by Dave Williams, on Flickr

A Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat was foraging in the bushes

53535521832_5323ed72e6_h.jpgSnowy-crowned Robin-Chat by Dave Williams, on Flickr

A Western Red-billed Hornbill in the leaves on the ground

53535521502_d769cdd56a_h.jpgWestern Red-billed Hornbill by Dave Williams, on Flickr

An African Paradise Flycatcher flitted about the place, constantly on the move as usual. This one had both eyes!

53536399356_198e59e721_h.jpgAfrican Paradise Flycatcher. The Gambia 2024 by Dave Williams, on Flickr

We even had a Common Redstart pass by while we were there too.

53535521047_c124b81a4a_h.jpgCommon redstart by Dave Williams, on Flickr

That was staying the deep shade.

Our half day soon ended as we were kept busy watching the constant coming and goings and my two friends were pleased with the choice of venue so we all went home happy.

 

Later in my holiday I met up with another couple staying at our hotel who were interested in a day trip and I was agreeable to joining them which would reduce costs for us all. A price of £40pp was agreed with Mustapha, another guide I know and the one who had first taken me to the sunny hide which five years ago no-one else seemed to be taken to. This time he told me we could include a visit to Baobab Island as well. I'd never heard of the place and was surprised to find it was very close by to the other locations. An inexpensive boat crossing is required and the island has accommodation chalets too. Nothing luxurious but worth noting for future reference. The other couple had lunch there, I settled for just a drink. The offering of chicken and chips looked OK but it was extra to the cost of the trip and as I usually don't bother with lunch when it's hot I didn't feel I'd missed out when I saw what the got for £7.50 a plate.

The star bird here though was worth the time spent there

African Scops Owl.

53535521982_5b44acb1a9_h.jpgAfrican Scops Owl by Dave Williams, on Flickr

We didn't bother visiting the open fields but paid a visit to the woodland hide twice, once after visiting the Greyish Eagle Owls again who had moved in to a less visible location and were very alert to our presence.

53536721924_0097ad5b77_h.jpg_G7A0511 copy by Dave Williams, on Flickr

So we didn't hang around there for long.

The hide though produced a 'lifer' for me, Green-headed Sunbird.

53536399901_fedc884743_h.jpgGreen-headed Sunbird by Dave Williams, on Flickr

and when we had a short visit for the second time that day I got some shots of an African Pygmy Kingfisher that was high on my wish list but not quite the views I'd hoped for.

53536585118_0064f9cf10_h.jpgAfrican Pygmy Kingfisher by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The sunny hide didn't have the same birds as the previous visit but we did see two new ones

African Yellow White-eye, this one getting a shower from a Village Weaver

53536400576_41997e8e1f_h.jpgAfrican Yellow White-eye. by Dave Williams, on Flickr

and a third Honeyguide for my trip list, this one Lesser Honeyguide

53536824545_831e067558_h.jpgLesser Honeyguide by Dave Williams, on Flickr

 

So, it all goes to show, a second or even third visit can be worthwhile especially to this location.

Birding 10/10, Photography 9/10

Edited by Dave Williams
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The third trip I took with my two friends was to Kartong, an area of old sand pits which are now full of water and provide an excellent haven for waterbirds of all descriptions. It backs up to the beach and the mouth of the river that separates South Senegal with The Gambia. It's also home to the bird observatory.

A full days trip was agreed with each paying £40 which included a decent length boat trip down the river and lunch afterwards. We also requested a quick stop at Tanji beach on the way back to Kotu. Our original plan had been to add it to the trip to Brufut but we spent too much time waiting for the Turaco which didn't materialise.

On arrival at Kartong we hunkered down on the edge of the vast lily ponds hoping for some close encounters which I had once enjoyed on a previous visit.

Large flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks were roosting.

53536649027_eeab4cefcb_h.jpgWhite-faced Whistling Duck by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Occasionally taking to flight when a raptor appeared over head.

53537948830_d6581c32d7_h.jpgWhite-faced Whistling Duck by Dave Williams, on Flickr

There were several Ospreys, a Western Marsh Harrier  and a pair of African Harrier Hawks all adding to the panicked take off now and again.

53537850589_0760ed6043_h.jpgAfrican Harrier Hawk by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The views tended to be distant , even those of the the likes of Purple Swamphen, Black Heron, African Spoonbill and several Egrets.

It was the best photo opportunity for Black Crake I had during my whole holiday, being distant the birds more likely to stay out in the open for longer.

53537527996_43b8eedcf6_h.jpgBlack Crake by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Some fly by Terns, there were Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns around made for better opportunities and I particularly like a shot of the latter accidentally picking up a lily frond when having a drink.

53536648627_87902bdf95_h.jpgGull-billed Tern by Dave Williams, on Flickr

An African Jacana looked good in the sunlight

 53537527861_ab6d18c927_h.jpgAfrican Jacana by Dave Williams, on Flickr

but the best bird was undoubtedly a passing Palm Nut Vulture. They are becoming quite rare.

53537948090_d9b2cbc61b_h.jpgPalm Nut Vulture by Dave Williams, on Flickr

We left the lily ponds and walked through scrub towards the beach. A Woodcut Shrike, Yellow Wagtail and this stunning Abyssinian Roller were the few birds we encountered.

53537528146_e9d21b8396_h.jpgAbyssinian Roller by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Arriving at the beach there were quite a few Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hunting from various perches.

53537949900_567746e0ac_h.jpgBlue-cheeked Bee-eater by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The rubbish on the beach was quite numerous but worse was to come.

Meanwhile we went in search of the star birds there....White-fronted Plover.

53537949955_83feb02997_h.jpgWhite-fronted Plover by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Our guide Lamin knew where to look and soon found them. They are pretty skittish so this old geezer had to get down on his hands and knees to get closer!

WhatsAppImage2024-02-05at13_27_17.jpeg.00a30661ee891a5895c34b909d0871fb.jpeg

 

That bald patch is growing exponentially of late!

Satisfied with our shots we moved further along the beach with passing Cormorants and several Ospreys constantly flying past us. We soon came to a spot where the tide obviously dumps rubbish from the sea and it was a huge disappointment to see this sight.

53536648587_5ee05ede79_h.jpgKartong Beach by Dave Williams, on Flickr

If you look these heaps of plastic netting stretch for miles and this is just the rubbish that's made it to the beach. Is this the result of selling off their fishing rights? Last time I was here the beach was fairly pristine.

By now it was time for our boat trip which we elected to take before lunch rather than after.

There were hundreds of Gulls, Terns, Pelicans and Cormorants roosting on the sandbanks on the Senegal side of the river...great if you keep a country list!

53537528526_5536e400b8_h.jpgWhite-fronted Cormorant by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Heading inland slightly we came across a single cow who was being pestered by three Yellow-billed Oxpeckers.

53537948565_f21a553900_h.jpgYellow-billed Oxpecker by Dave Williams, on Flickr

What you can't see in the photograph is the wound they were after. I used to like this species thinking they did their hosts a favour eating ticks etc but their actions are more sinister than just that.

Beyond all these birds was a grooming Osprey which we all failed to notice taking off. The first we were aware was an almighty splash maybe a mere 25m from the boat. It was a huge photographic opportunity missed as it was in open water with the sun in the right direction too. To make matters worse for me sat at the back of the boat my view was totally obscured as it flew across the front of the boat, hidden by the roof covering. When it emerged in view it was evident it had made a successful strike.

53537949380_53cb168188_h.jpgOsprey by Dave Williams, on Flickr

How annoying was that and a lesson learnt if I ever go back. You can pay a fortune in the UK for opportunities like that at special photo hides in Scotland and elsewhere too.

I was on full alert after that. We did get on chance but the light was wrong and the bird missed the fish. Maybe next time eh?

53537715368_9788bc3328_h.jpgOsprey by Dave Williams, on Flickr

We did find an Osprey sat in the water that posed beautifully for us so we didn't come away empty handed.

53537948180_297d3ded09_h.jpgOsprey by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The star bird of the trip was supposedly the Goliath Heron.

53537950065_36d8ad1176_h.jpgGoliath Heron by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Not so Goliath when sat down which actually was a first for me.

It did stand up when we got a bit too close though. It's a big bird that the photograph doesn't really show.

53536648307_5b0748cdec_h.jpgGoliath Heron by Dave Williams, on Flickr

After lunch we headed towards Tanji, a fishing village further up the coast but first we stopped for views of this male Namaqua Dove. Who said Pigeons and Doves are never pretty!

53537528691_e3888ed9bb_h.jpgNamaqua Dove by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Arriving at Tanji you are immediately hit by the stench of the fish . The catch is landed by the locals and the area has a huge number of smoke houses and drying tables and it seems to have expanded in recent years too. Again the once pristine beach to the north is covered in rubbish, this time though more like household rubbish. Old clothes, shoes,bags ,sacks and plastics.

53537949170_0769af8134_h.jpgTanji Beach by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The Bar-tailed Godwits didn't fail us

53536649347_d914eae0bb_h.jpgBar-tailed Godwit by Dave Williams, on Flickr

I'm never quite sure if they are indeed Bar-tailed or Black-tailed especially in non breeding plumage but seeing one take to flight makes the ID easy.

53537715598_219d9879fc_h.jpgBar-tailed Godwit by Dave Williams, on Flickr

In the past there have been far more birds, particularly Terns , in the area but this time they were largely missing.

I was pleased to see this Grey-headed Gull having a drink though.

53537528886_3f77c97049_h.jpgGrey-headed Gull by Dave Williams, on Flickr

All in all it had been an excellent outing and very good value for money really.

Any boat trip is always enjoyable in my book.

Consequently I would certainly recommend this particular trip, birding 8/10 photographic opportunities also 8/10.

Edited by Dave Williams
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The last outing with my two friends was a simple taxi ride to the Calypso Bar at Cape Point. We just went for a planned couple of hours and as such Claire came along too. I had heard that a Black-casqued Hornbill had taken up residence there in the last few weeks and having never seen one I thought let's give it a go. £11 for the taxi for the round trip including waiting time was a bargain outing. The bar is set in pleasant gardens overlooking a large pond which is surrounded by a steep bank around most of it. There is no way you can get down to the waters edge and you wouldn't want to! I spotted one Crocodile basking in the sun on the far side but come feeding time when they throw in some fish there were at least half a dozen made an appearance.

53539357653_cda9ca55b2_h.jpgWest African Crocodile by Dave Williams, on Flickr

On arrival we were shown to a table by one of the waiters but when I asked about the Hornbill he said it had flown away that morning.

Such was our luck. Still it was a pleasant venue, the beer was cold even if it was 170 dalasi compared to my usual bar's 100! You don't get Crocodiles there though and they need feeding too.

It looked like there wasn't too much avian activity, a pair of Black Crake on the far side of the pond, a Common Sandpiper on an island in the middle and a Striated Heron fishing in front of us.

53539180911_5874a3e2a5_h.jpgStriated Heron by Dave Williams, on Flickr

A Grey Heron flew in and joined the Sandpiper on the island

53539504489_e8379b1938_h.jpgGrey Heron by Dave Williams, on Flickr

and in the trees away from the pond, a Yellow Crowned Gonalek and Long-tailed Glossy Starling made an appearance too.

53539357873_607d58f051_h.jpgLong-tailed Glossy starling by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The local bird guide approached us having seen our gear and asked if we'd come to see the Hornbill. We told him we had and he went off to see if he could find it. He came back and said it appeared to have gone.

Just as well as he apparently was asking $30 to show it to those willing to pay!

We had ordered more beers when I heard a Broad-billed Roller calling from the tree above where it must have settled after a flight around the pool.

53539358103_712b8ddf76_h.jpgBroad-billed Roller by Dave Williams, on Flickr

I thought I'll take a look and see what the view is like once I was away from the canopy over our table.

To my amazement there was sat one big ugly bird!

53539359533_c9f8e835a2_h.jpgBlack-casqued Hornbill by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Am I being unkind?! This was one one of two lifers I had on the trip and this one wasn't meant to be there. It's not even in the book!

53539358613_09f70ee131_h.jpg_Black-casqued Hornbill by Dave Williams, on Flickr

It sat there for some time giving loads of photo opportunities, even doing some preening too.

53539359108_030211bffb_h.jpgBlack-casqued Hornbill by Dave Williams, on Flickr

It might not be the prettiest bird I'll ever see but it was a bit special none the less.

However, the best photo opportunities were starting to happen out on the pond.

Caspian Terns were coming in to drink at the pool.

53538301467_b147ea7262_h.jpgCaspian Tern by Dave Williams, on Flickr

This was more like it!

53538303192_b87a0f23fd_h.jpgCaspian Tern by Dave Williams, on Flickr

The Hornbill disappeared without a sound so no flight shots there then but I was too engrossed with the Terns to care.

53539359718_43c305523d_h.jpgCaspian Tern by Dave Williams, on Flickr

I did take a lot of shots but I think this is my favourite.

53539357823_f8a41eb31e_h.jpgCaspian Tern by Dave Williams, on Flickr

 

A great couple of hours in the perfect location. Birding doesn't get any better than some good action whilst sat in a beach bar!!

Edited by Dave Williams
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Enjoyed reading your report.

Stunning photography.

I've been lucky enough to visit The Gambia several times - last time in 2016. A great place to escape the UK winter for a while.

Very sad to see all that rubbish on the beach - a real shame.

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And so...we had booked a three week stay at the Bakotu Hotel, I have described the outings but only briefly mentioned everything happening around the Kotu area.

The village itself remains virtually unchanged in all the many years we have been visiting which goes back maybe 15 years.

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Opposite our hotel is the entrance to the craft market which is also home for three restaurants, an Indian, a Pizza plus type of place and a one that is more fish and steaks which offers a superb grilled Gambas on skewers with chips or rice for an extremely  reasonable £6.

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Walk through the market and you are on the beach where beach bar/restaurant was my favourite for an early doors beer whilst watching the sun go down.

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The beach is pretty quiet during the week but is very popular with the locals at the weekend , however, it goes quiet in the evening.

A short walk from the hotel and further along the beach are a couple more restaurants, one of which has a large screen TV for the footy! The owner/manager is also a Liverpool supporter and if there was a game on I was given the best seat in the house to watch.

The burgers are pretty good too!

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You certainly won't starve in The Gambia even if the food is pretty straight forward. We ate mainly burgers, pizzas and grilled fish and prawns.

The alternatives to Kotu have increased in recent years. A few new all inclusive hotels have sprung up in between Kotu and the Senegambia strip, the main tourist area which quite frankly I avoid. Not my cup of tea, too busy, too tacky for my liking. Once upon a time the Senegambia hotel was the one all birders stayed in , and some still book there, perhaps misguidedly thinking it's the best place to stay . I believe they still feed the vulture everyday in the grounds but otherwise they don't hold too much wildlife anymore. Much better , in my opinion, to be nearer to Kotu Creek.

Alas though, Kotu Creek and the surrounding area isn't as it used to be. Some areas have been claimed for development, some areas, previously rice paddy fields have been left untended as salt water has flooded them and made them unusable. The famous sewerage ponds/lakes , once a huge attraction to a myriad of birds both on the water and the surrounding bushy areas, have been totally ruined from a birding perspective. Two of the ponds are covered in a large water plant which probably holds some Crakes and Jacanas but viewing is impossible. The surrounding areas are stripped of any growth and are just barren bare soil. A walk along the nature trail revealed very very few birds and to cap it all the entry on to the golf course from the rear of the Bakotu hotel has been locked. I think there is an issue of people being discouraged from walking on the course if they are not playing which I understand but as it now takes a 25 minute walk to get there and I didn't bother after a couple of unrewarding visits.

Am I painting a bleak picture?

I must admit, after a 5 year absence, I was expecting some disappointment but if I'm honest the first 24 hours I was depressed about what I found!

Kotu Creek itself can't be built on for obvious reasons but it can be dramatically effected by the sea. there has always been an issue of sand building up and blocking the tidal access but when we arrived it appeared the water had not been refreshed for some time and was pretty disgusting. Sewerage is discharged from one or two places, it needs a tidal clear out on a daily basis. 12 years ago when the tide ran out from the creek there was a "ferry" to take you across the outflow but nowadays it's not either strong or deep because of the sand build up.

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Fortunately this sand blockage was at least partially cleared during our first week of the holiday and the creek became tidal again to a certain extent. The water was noticeably cleaner after a week or so too and the bird life started to increase.

One consideration to also mention of course is the time of year. I'm told the multitude of Storks and Spoonbills would increase as the weeks go on through January to February and so it seemed to be. The missing Gulls, Terns  and waders were on the increase by the time we left so maybe my visit was a little too early this time?

When I return however I plan to go in November /December to find the birds in their breeding plumage. I also intend spending less time on the coast and travelling up river, not only in The Gambia but through in to Senegal too. When that will happen, I haven't decide yet. Too many things to do and not enough time left to do them all.

I have seen most of what The Gambia has to offer, so much so that I lay on my sun bed ( bored!) and using E-birder ticked off all the species I had seen without the need of a guide book. Incidentally the count was 154 so it wasn't a poor score but some birds I would have expected to see were missing, Storks, Hoopoes, Cisticolas, Bee-eater species the list goes on. However, I had already decided that this trip wasn't about collecting snaps of as many species as possible, more about trying for some better and more interesting shots.

I spent a lot of time around Kotu Bridge, a popular spot for visiting birders and a hunting ground for new clients for the bird guides who have a base nearby. If you spend enough time at any one spot you increase the odds of seeing something special happening, especially when it involves predators. The Gambia might not have lions, leopards, wild dogs and cheetahs but Kotu Creek is a home to many avian predators and I was after a piece of that action. My daily routine became early breakfast, leave Claire set up on a sun bed and then I'd go wandering until as late as midday. Late afternoon I was back out for a couple of hours, early doors for a beer or two then dinner. Perfect harmony!

Whilst most people just stood on the bridge I found a spot underneath it. The remains of the old bridge just in front of me maybe 30-40 feet away.

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The water down there was a bit rank but if you want the shot then you have to be prepared for some discomforts. Every now and then though I'd retreat for some clean air!!

On my second day I was treated to a sight and image capture I was delighted with, the downside was I would probably not better it which was a bit of a negative with 19 days left but I was determined to try.

I took countless hundreds of shots everyday. It's all too easy when you shoot 20 frames a second which can't be reduced using electronic shutter on my Canon R5. It's been a tedious job sorting them in the couple of weeks we have been home but I'm nearly there now.

My trip report may or may not have more additions, I think I'll try and show some of the birds and what I saw of them as and when I get the time which might be months from now! I'm off on another trip on Tuesday and that will be 12 days of birding 24/7. I'm off with a couple of friends one of whom I met under a bush overlooking the sewerage ponds  sheltering the sun in The Gambia. That was 12 years ago and we are still in touch. The other is a German buddy I met in Bulgaria on a guided birding trip 10 years ago. Some birders prefer isolation, I quite enjoy their fellowship too.

Anyway, no more opinions or chat about The Gambia.

I recommend to anyone who is interested in birds it's still worth a visit without a doubt. A Belgian couple I was talking to over breakfast on their last day told me how much they had enjoyed their first visit and intended to return. "lovely to visit somewhere so unspoilt" was their verdict. All goes to show what you don't know doesn't hurt you! I agree though, compared to many beach types of destination Kotu is indeed unspoilt still. 6 hours from the UK on a direct flight, virtually guaranteed winter sun what's not to like?

Oh and if your curious, this is the shot I took on my second day.Did I better it, you might have a long wait to find out but we'll see!

cheers

Dave.

 

53525821554_36e6d8fe33_h.jpgnt Kingfisher.   The Gambia 2024 by Dave Williams, on Flickr

 

 

Edited by Dave Williams
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