Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Birdwatching Gambia Day 15 Kotu....Last Morning

Feb 13th.
For our last day in the Gambia we only had till lunchtime so Steve and myself decided to go to the sewage farm then have a look around the scrubby area between the sewage farm and the river.

The sewage farm had the same species as previously discussed so we didn't linger long there and moved into the scrub. Immediately we spotted a group of Senegal parrots which we managed to get quite close to and then it was a case of adopting the stand in a shady place and wait tactics........................and it work great. Most of the birds moving through were the common stuff - sunbirds, finches, babblers but then a grey woodpecker turned up and gave us something more interesting to photograph.

Things moved up a notch when a lesser honeyguide appeared only about 10 yards away .........

and then we hit the jackpot as a fine-spotted woodpecker landed on a tree probably about 7-8 yards away!!!.

If that wasn't enough the honeyguide decided to have a look around the tree we were sheltering under and was literally only a few yards above our heads - in fact I'm quite amazed the camera could focus on it.However it was almost directly above us so the pictures were a little disappointing:

The final scarce-ish bird to turn up was a northern crombec. Here we had good views but it wasn't quite close enough and it wouldn't stay still for long enough to get a decent shot - or if it did it was looking the wrong way.

As time was moving on we went back towards the bridge and was playing with the finches and prinias when some people out for a stroll pointed out a bird on the wires  a little way off - it was a juvenile black shouldered kite. I'm sure it couldn't have been there the whole time. Whatever, Steve and myself moved closer trying to get the sun behind us then stopping every few paces to allow the bird to get used to our presence and to grab a few shots. In the end we were so close that to go any closer would result in us being too far underneath it. Anyway we back off and left it there.

Back at the bridge there was the normal cast but what was new (for the bridge) was a ridiculously tame hammerkop that was so close I had to stand in the road avoiding passing traffic to get it all in frame.

However the thought of the black kite kept playing on my mind so I went back. Fortunately it had changed position so I went through the same routine as before.

I'd got the shots I wanted when I noticed two others with cameras approaching it from my right - the light couldn't have been good from where they were coming from - but they kept coming until the bird had had enough and took to the air. Luckily I had anticipated this and had the camera off the tripod ready for some BIF shots....magic!

And that was the last shot I took though I did bump into Tom Webzell on the bridge as I was going back to the Bakotu hotel. Coincidence or what?

I'd love to go back to the Gambia though I strongly doubt I ever will. If I did get the chance I'd have to return when the weavers and finches are in breeding plumage.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Birdwatching Gambia. Day 14 . Kotu area

12th  Feb.

For our last full day in the Gambia Steve I decided to stay around the Kotu area - I for one  had had enough of the coach and wanted to concentrate on taking some pictures rather than hunting out new species.
We decided we'd have a morning walk along the Cycle Track. We had walked the track late afternoon on our first full day but hadn't really seen that much which seemed at odds with what I'd read about the area. For those who don't know the track runs alongside a wet agricultural area (west side) and on the east side are a few pools. The area is very good for herons (its just being a matter of how close they are) but today the pools also held African spoonbills, Hadada ibis and sacred ibis. We were looking into the light so the views were not ideal but the only other Hadada ibis we'd seen was at Georgetown/Janjanbureh and we'd not seen that many spoonbills either.

Along the track we'd acquired a guide - he just followed us saying he had no work that day so he might as well wander around with us - shrewd operator - and he said he could show us painted snipe - a bird that we had seen on two occasions but very distant and partially obscured views.

Paulo took us to the snipe place which was a shallow pool surrounded by mangoes with a hide constructed by the local bird guides. There were around 20 painted snipe present (plus at least one common snipe) with clear unobstructed views. Just why Tijan hadn't taken us there when we'd been so close I have no idea though it may be because the bird guides like you to pay to use the place (they built it so why not I say). Whatever it was a missed opportunity that had now been rectified.
The light wasn't in the right direction in the morning so we planned to return late afternoon.
Also on the pool we had whimbrel and sedge warbler.

On the way back to the cycle track we found 4 gonoleks, a family party of wood hoopoes and I got my best shots of black-headed heron.

Once back on the cycle track Paolo, pointed out a harrier hawk that some how Steve and I totally failed to see - my excuse is I was looking at finches in the track-side scrub and on the roller front we found a group of blue-bellied rollers and a very obliging broad billed roller. We also saw a very pale/washed out/bleached bee-eater that I presume was a blue-cheeked.

By now time was getting on and the temperature rising fast so it was back to the hotel for a drink and lunch for Steve and a swim for me - now that's what I call a birding holiday - a bit of effort in the morning, then relax around the pool and go out again when it gets cooler!

Mid afternoon we went out again stopping on the bridge to try and photograph a blue-breasted kingfisher and a close long tailed cormorant.

Whilst blue breasted kingfishers are not rare and we had seen them on a number of occasions but it was never at close quarters and never with clear views. At first this one was no different but luck was on our side as it changed positions several times getting closer and by positioning the camera a foot or so off the pavement and shooting between the bridge railings I could just about manage a clear shot. Superb birds.

Then it was off to the painted snipe.

The problem with the snipe is that they just stood there normally with their heads under a wing. As a consequence they never come closer than when you first arrive so after 15 minutes it was time to move on.
Paulo then took us an old sand quarry that was now filled with water and a large reed bed. The hope was we'd see little bittern but didn't but it did provide our closest views of white faced whistling duck. Also there were jacanas, herons, little bee-eaters and a few little brown jobs in the reeds that may have been warblers of some description but I never got a decent view.

Then it was back to the hotel.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Birdwatching The Gambia. Day 13. Tendaba then back to Kotu

11th Feb.
The day started with a boat trip across the river and into the mangoes. I had expected lots of herons and kingfishers but it was quite disappointing on both fronts. On the kingfisher side there were obviously pied kingfishers – but you see them anywhere there's a puddle of water – and we saw one blue bellied kingfisher. On the heron front there were lots of western reef egrets and grey herons, fewer gt whites, a lone goliath that we only saw as it flew away from us and out and for me a very  poor view of white backed night heron though I think those at the back of the boat did somewhat better.
What we did see was hoards of darters and great  cormorants though neither proved easy to photograph from a drifting boat. As before the distance, orientation to the bird and light direction are all out of your control so you just have to grab what you can and given how close we got at times a zoom would have been very useful.

African darter

Great cormorant

We did stop and get off the boat to search a dry area on one of the islands for bronze winged courser and yet again we dipped. This was a bird I was really beginning to hate; or at least I’d hate one if I saw one. We’d probably spent 5 hrs on 3 separate occasions trying to see this thing and not got a sniff, not even a flight view.
We (well the 2 of us at the front of the boat) did get good, if fleeting views, of a white throated bee-eater and a black stork circled distantly.
Pels fishing owl, finfoot,  and African blue flycatcher were the big 3 for this location and we dipped on all of them.
When we got back to the camp we landed at the village pier rather than the one associated with the camp because the tide was out – remarkable to think the river is tidal that far up. As we landed we were surrounded by little swifts – they were nesting under the jetty. I spent the next 30-40 minutes trying to get BIF shots, some of which I was pretty pleased with.

Litle swift

After an early lunch we set off for Kotu stopping at one location because some vultures (Rupells, white backed and hooded) were coming to a dead goat. This was the only time we saw large vultures on the ground and close though the view was obscured by the long grass and scrub; though one did show some consideration when it flew up to a nearby tree.

White -backed vulture

White-backed vulture

We also stopped for Tijan to do some shopping – he purchased 2 garden beds (to sleep on in the shade during the heat of the day) made out of wood and what looked akin to raffia. For these he paid 250 Dalasi (less than £4 each ). You could furnish your house quite cheaply out here!.
We stopped again at the wet valley we’d stopped at on the way to Tendaba and again it was excellent for raptors. In total the group saw 18 species of raptor and on this day most of which were seen at this place. I have no idea how many of the 18 I actually saw because I took little notice of the very distant ones. I did spend some time slowly working my way closer to a brown snake eagle sitting atop a tree a 100  yards or so from where the group were standing getting some reasonable shots. Then it took to the air but instead of flying away it circled towards me and slowly spiraled up right over my head giving me a good hard stare for the first few circuits. We had prolonged but distant views of circling long crested eagle and batelur and even longer distance views of tawny eagle plus the more common stuff.

Brown snake eagle


Long crested eagle

Also at the Wet Valley we saw  a pair of northern puffback, African golden oriole, greater honey guide and stood beside a tree with a calling grey headed bush shrike in it but despite 8 pairs of eyes looking we just could not locate it.

African Golden oriole

Our expedition up river had come to an end. It had been interesting to see the country away from the coastal strip but we’d been away 5 days and only really been to 2 places that really repaid our efforts – the red throated bee-eater colony and the wet valley for the raptors.  The major set pieces – Basse and the boat trip through the mangoes - were interesting but not very productive.  The main reason I signed up for this trip was so I could go up river, something I’d never be able to do on a family holiday, and to see and photograph Egyptian plover, red-throated and carmine bee-eater. So on that basis we only scored 50% - good pictures of one species, record shots of a second and a total dip on the third. We did see several species that hadn't featured in my thinking  - Temminck's courser, Abyssinian hornbill and a number of raptors - so the jury is still out as to whether it was worthwhile or not.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Birding The Gambia 2015. Day 12 The road back to Tendaba.

Feb 10th

We actually left Janjanbureh just after sun up for the trip back to Tendaba. This was because Tijan wanted to check out some sites on the way back for Carmine bee-eater along the South Bank Road.
First stop was a marabou stark colony. It was still only just getting light when we were there but another tick in the bag (but they are disgustingly ugly birds).

Next we went to a wide expanse of agricultural plots with associated dykes and a few trees/bushes. Here we saw all the normal stuff – spur winged plovers, lizard buzzard, an assortment of herons but as we wandered alongside one dyke we found a malachite kingfisher which initially wouldn’t let us get very near but eventually it relented and we all got good shots.

As we left this area a fish eagle was spotted so we stopped and had a look but at the same place a pearl spotted owlet was found right out in the open:

Our next stop was where the carmine bee-eaters had been reported. By now it was really hot but off we trudged, Tijan in the van. I don't think any of us had any real expectation of success but Tijan was as chirpy as ever. In the end we adopted the tried and tested meothod where Tijan would wander off in the sun whilst we sheltered under a tree.  Then he called us over. In the far distant there was something that could be a carmine. We stopped trudging and started striding out with purpose - all thought about sheltering from the sun and moaning about how hot it miraculously disappearing. He’d only gone and found them!!!!!
There were 2, possibly 3, there and though we never got close I did manage some record shots.

For lunch we stopped beside a lake for a Tijan-style  picnic – bread and sardines or bread and cheese. I stuck to water (my staple beverage not being available) but amused myself trying (not very successfully) to photograph a pair of pigmy sunbirds. We also found 2 more turtle doves, a yellow wagtail and tree pipit.

Back at Tendaba we dropped off out kit and met up at the bar area. I went down to the dock and had some time with the local gull billed terns then we went off to search (again) for bronze winged courser ……..again with no success. I must admit I had little faith in our being successful and only went because of Tijan’s earlier success with the carmines and in the knowledge that if I didn’t go they would all get stonking views and photographs of the courser. So I went thus ensuring everyone dipped.

Birdwatching The Gambia 2015. Day 11, Basse.

Feb 9th 

Today should have been one of if not the highlight of the trip as we were going up to Basse to see the Egyptian plover and carmine bee-eaters.
Soon after departure we stopped to get fuel for the bus. This was quite fortuitous as across the road were several Bruce’s green pigeons. We had seen these before but not as close as this, and in the tree to their left was a shikra, the second of the day as there’s been one hanging around the Eco lodge at Janjanbureh.

Bruce's green pigeon

Not much to report about the journey to Basse other than we stopped for a brown snake eagle.

brown snake eagle

We had gone to Basse in hope rather than expectation because all the reports filtering back to the coast said the plovers had already departed so in many respects it was no shock when there was no sign of them but I amused myself with a beautiful sunbird for a few minutes. 

Beautiful sunbid

Whilst there are the ferries that transport cars/small lorries/waggons across the river a few at a time most people get across via man-powered boats that can seat around 10-12 people. Well one of the ferryman claimed to have seen an Egyptian  plover earlier that morning so we piled into his boat for a river trip (and of course for a fee). It was fascinating watching the guy sculling the boat (propelling it forward using a single oar at the rear) but needless to say we didn't see any plovers. I’ll leave you to decide whether we'd been scammed.
Next stop was to look for carmine bee-eaters a few hundred yards east of the ferry where the town stops and the agricultural land starts (can be seen on Google maps). Our luck hadn't changed and there were none to be seen though we did find a red-throated bee-eater.  And that was that for Basse. A long long way to go for nothing.

Back at Janjanbureh (Georgetown) we were hanging around the bar area when Steve and I decided to wander down to the river to see if the swamp flycatcher was still there. It was and because a young lad was sitting on the river bank less than 10 yards from it I moved closer. As I fumbled around with the tripod it flew off down river but another appeared almost immediately. By far the best shots of the day.

Swamp flycatcher

Late afternoon we went for a walk down to the (now deserted) Bird Safari camp. This was similar to our other walks through scrub/wooded areas – we saw quite a few species but few were seen well and almost none at close enough range to photograph. We did hang around in one clearing seeing purple heron (very distant), a Wahlbergs eagle (impossibly distant) but I went to the trees and searched out a pearl spotted owlet that had been calling. The bird totally ignored me and I left it where I'd found it - the advantage of birding alone.

Pearl-spotted owlet

When I returned to the group they had spotted a distant pair of  hadada ibis and an African fish eagle – the first of the trip for both species so I took some record shots  We also saw a turtle dove in the same area, something that Tijan was interested in as part of a project he was involved in.

Hadada ibis

African fish eagle

Other than a pair of colobus monkeys (again very distant) that was about it. A long day and a lot of travelling for nothing. Still I had got some pictures of swampy the swamp flycatcher.