Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Gambing Bird watching - last 2 days

For the last 2 days of the holiday it was back to lazing around the pool with my bird watching confined to the hotel garden. Since the number of new birds seen was pretty small I'm going to deal with these last 2 days together.
Both mornings I tried (and failed) to get some decent shots of palm swifts, but they are good enough to see what it is.
Palm Swift
For the first few days of the holiday long tailed glossy starling were infrequent visitors to the Kairaba gardens but for the second half of the week they were almost constant residents. The same applies to a flock of around 30 piapiacs.


long-tailed glossy starling
Also appearing in the garden for the last 2 days of the holiday were a family of 10 wood hoopoes.

Wood hoopoes
I've grouped these 3 species together because they were often together on the lawns, they are all dark, they all have long tails (so can be confused when you first encounter them) and given how often I saw them they were all difficult to get pleasing shots of. The starlings in particular didn't like you approaching and with all of them getting the angle to the sun correct for showing off their colours to best effect was a challenge.

A very common garden bird that I've not yet reported is the bronze manikin. These are tiny finches that go around in flocks of 20-30 but spend a lot of time feeding on the ground. I never had a lot of luck trying to approach them but if you sat/stood still they would come within a couple of yards of you. Photographically the problem was they were so small they were often obscured by the grass and you needed the right angle to the sun to bring out their colours.

Bronze Mannikins (male and female)

My efforts on trying to get shots of manikins perched up on grass/shrubs was finally rewarded, not with a good manikin shot, but with a picture of an African silverbill - the only one I saw.

African silverbill

I've also not mentioned pigeons and doves. These are literally everywhere, the problem is trying to sort out what is what with the collared doves.
The two pigeons seen in Brufut woods were easy - the African green pigeon and the black beaked wood dove.
African green pigeon

Black-billed wood dove
The speckled pigeon and laughing dove were also easy to id:

Laughing dove

Speckled pigeon
Sorting out the 4 possible collared doves was looking to be a problem but it seems all I captured on camera were the red-eyed dove and the vinaceous dove. I have no idea whether I saw the other two possibilities.

Vinaceous dove (dark eyes)

Red-eyed dove (red around the eyes)

Another new bird seen in the garden during this last 2 days  was the lesser honeyguide and there was a new garden tick in the form of a yellow-fronted tinkerbird (previously seen at Brufut woods).

Yellow-fronted tinkerbird

Lesser Honeyguide

Late evening of the 6th I also saw 2 oriole warblers from our balcony but they were gone before I could get the camera - a nuisance that because I don't think they are that common in gardens.

My final find of the holiday occurred on the last morning. I saw what I thought was a small dove fly up from one of the bird baths into a tree. I checked it out just in case and was really glad I did as just above me was  a shikra. I immediately took a few shots then moved several times to try and get a better angle. Amazingly it just sat there looking around as if I didn't exist. The views and light were not great but it was a fantastic bird to finish the holiday on.

Initial view


In conclusion Gambia was great; it was warm, it was sunny and a lot of the birds proved very approachable. The Kairaba Hotel was excellent and I managed to see/identify 48 species of birds in the garden and got decent photographs of nearly all of them.
The total trip list was 106, pretty uninspiring by many standards but it was a holiday rather than a bird tour and the emphasis was on photography rather than listing and to that end I managed to photograph 83 species so I was pretty happy.
And there's plenty to go back for!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Gambia Bird Watching. Day 5

The last 3 days of the holiday were to be spent being lazy (not that we'd been very active other than in the restaurants and bars) but today I had another 2.5 hr outing with Mustapha.
After finding out I had stupidly deleted the roller and lizard buzzard shots before checking they had downloaded properly I contacted him and arranged a trip with just the 2 of us to go roller hunting again. This time we went north to Cape Point.
We got there from the Banjul/Serrekunda Highway with views across a large wetland. We didn't stop but a few greater flamingos could be seen in the distance.
We stopped in a scrubby area with the sea a few hundred yards away and started to search for rollers.
The problem was I was constantly distracted by the large number of seed eaters around; red-billed fire finch, northern red bishop (non-breeding plumage), red-billed quelea plus a couple of zitting cisticolas.

Red-billed firefinch (female)

Northern red bishop
Red-billed quelea (well 2 definitely are. I think the others are bishops!)

After 15 minutes or so we found an Abyssinian roller on some wires and moved closer adopting the now normal routine of me in the lead and getting my angle to the light correct.

Abyssinian roller

After getting as good a shot as I was going to the bird flew off but this time landed low down so off we went again.

With the light behind me I approached it head on and got some decent shots then moved around the side of some scrub to try for some flank shots:

Eventually it tired of my presence and flew. 1st target achieved and the shots obtained were infinitely better than the wire shots I had lost yesterday whilst downloading.

Whilst this was going on there were a few Caspian terns flying back and forth so I grabbed a few flight shots and during the walk back to the car Mustapha found a woodchat shrike, and I took advantage of a very obliging spur-winged lapwing.

Caspian tern

Woodchat shrike
Spur-winged lapwing

I'm not sure where we went next but as we entered a built up area there were a number of hirundines on the wires/in the air. Mustapha instantly said they were red-chested swallows and asked did I want to photograph them? Is the Pope a Catholic? We stopped.
I got out the car to get some shots with  Mustapha stopping a couple of the local kids from pestering me.
Also whizzing around were a few little swifts so I had a go for them as well.

Red-chested swallows

Little swift
Our next stop was near some market gardens. Mustapha pointed out a grey kestrel 100 yards up the road which I went after whilst he was asking permission to go through the gardens into the fields behind. I didn't manage a shot of the kestrel. Why is it that normal people (as opposed to bird watchers/photographers) can walk within a few yards of birds perched in trees/on wires with impunity but try to get close with binoculars or a camera and the bloody things are off whilst they are still distant specks?
I met up with Mustapha and told him of my failure but my disappointment instantly disappeared - he'd found 6 blue-bellied rollers on the electricity wires in the rice fields.

 Blue-bellied rollers
This time I took a couple of shots whilst we were miles away which was just as well as 4 of the blighters flew off almost immediately flying right past us. I only managed a couple of poor shots as they flew past because of the time taken to get the camera off the tripod but the one I did snap had a broken beak - it seemed healthy enough though.

Happily one of the birds stayed long and let me get close enough to get some reasonable shots.

We then had a look around the rice filed where there were several good birds, in particular a small group of sacred ibis which were preening on the ground then decided to fly to a nearby tree:

Sacred ibis (plus grey heron)

The red showing on the underwing is breeding plumage.
Also around were some African wattled plovers but the light direction was not great for these.

African wattled lapwing

So that was that with Mustapha who had delivered in spades.  I was happy. He was happy I'd got the shots I wanted and  he'd got another couple of hours work. My 3 sessions with Mustapha had been great as I hope the pictures attest. For anyone interested contact detail for Mustapha can be found at http://www.gambiabirdguide.org/.

Mustapha Manneh with yours truely

The days actions wasn't quite over though because a pair of African grey hornbills came through the trees surrounding the swimming pool and I managed my best shots of grey headed sparrow, African thrush and pied crow; all common species around the garden but ones that had avoided the camera up to that point (some times due to lack of effort on my part and sometimes because they insisted on hugging the shade).

African grey hornbill

Grey headed sparrow

African Thrush

Pied crow

I also found a beautiful sunbird nest - I was watching a female sunbird  hoping it would come down into camera range when it just disappeared. Whilst I searched for it I found the nest and missing bird high up in the canopy.

Beautiful sunbird nest

Friday, 14 February 2014

Gambia Bird Watching . Day 4

This was our second morning with our guide Mustapha Manneh (http://www.gambiabirdguide.org/) who again collected us at 7.30. Today we went to Brufut Woods which was south along the coast road then inland a mile or so along a sand track.
This proved to be a better place to see bird rather than photograph them because almost immediately we saw a violet turaco and a little later we saw the green version. Moving into the forest we went up small overgrown path and was shown a pair of African Scops owls then back on one of the main track a Klaas's cuckoo flew past - so lot of good/newbirds but only poor shots of the Scops to show for our troubles.

African Scops Owl
On the main track we stood around by a very productive group of bushes seeing hoards of sunbirds (variable, beautiful and splendid) and got some cracking shots of the splendid; the largest of the sunbirds we saw and thankfully one that was happy to hunt from a low perch:

Splendid sunbird

Also seen whilst we were standing there were yellow fronted canary, yellow fronted tinkerbird and orange cheeked waxbill and a couple of red-billed firefinches walked past in the long grass.

Yellow-fronted canary

Yellow-fronted tinkerbird

Orange-cheeked waxbill

A walk along the track and a detour deep into the woods and Mustapha carefull stood us in one particular position and said look up........30 feet above us was a Verreaux's eagle owl being pesterd by a pied crow. Stand a foot either side and you wouldn't see anything! It's what you pay the guides for.

Verreaux's eagle Owl

More paths through the trees revealed an African green pigeon, well several actually  (I did get some shots but they were very poor) and nearby a pied hornbill was calling which Mustapha promptly found.

Pied Hornbill

Then it was into the 4x4 and off through the woods to another destination and after 20 minutes of searching - a long tailed nightjar. As most will know they don't move so these pictures were taken from about 5 yards but I couldn't get to a position where the sun was behind me.

Long-tailed nightjar

After that we went to the rangers hut for a cup of tea and watched some finches and a blackbilled wood pigeon coming to a watering station and screen they had erected nearby but I was not a good place to photograph birds as there was only a couple of shafts of light reaching the watering troughs though the pretty thick canopy.
Unfortunately this was the only sighting of a lavender waxbill I had - a stunning bird that I would like to have seen in the open.

Lavender waxbill plus red cheeked cordon bleu

Black-beaked wood dove

We then went searching for rollers and drove miles. First through along unpaved tracks then onto the main road searching the wires. We must have gone most of the way to the southern border with Senegal!
Eventually we found an Abyssinian and I got some decent shots then soon found a lizard buzzard perched on the wires and finally after an hour or so of searching we found a blue bellied roller; the target of all our searching.
Now the disaster. Whilst downloading onto my laptop this last set of images got erased/didn't download properly and by the time I found out I had wiped the cards! So 2 hrs of searching, a few minutes of joy whilst taking the pictures, then I'd lost the lot. Most tragic was the lizard buzzard shots which were pretty good because although being on a wire it was in bright sunlight unlike the other we'd see at Kotu.

Back at the hotel in the afternoon I was pretty depressed and didn't do much birding though I did find a tawny-flanked prinia.

Tawny-flanked prinia