Amazing - just what you need in the depths of winter - Mike McKavett comes up with the goods on Gambia...over to Mike, and enjoy....
Just back from a week in The Gambia after a 20 year absence. Not much change really. Abjectly poor and very hot. 95 during the day and 75 at night. Phew!
More people, but I'm not sure if that's population increase or people gravitating towards the coast.
Probably a bit of both. Increased development around the coast.
The area where we used to stay near Kotu Stream was horrendous as was the area around the Senegambia; a favourite with birders.
It was like 'tin city'. Most of my photography 20 years ago was done around a seasonal wet area close to Kotu. The area looks like a small town now.
We stayed at the Sheraton, a new development in a quiet area well to the south of the traditional tourist areas. It's very close to the Tanji Bird Reserve which is handy.
An attempt to preserve the dwindling coastal scrub habitat, it's not that good for birding but it's nice and quiet and hassle free.
I only came across 2 locals; fisherman who just said "hello". I came across them a little later, chopping wood which is illegal apparently.
Could explain their reticence to engage me in conversation but I wasn't going to complain. It's easy for us 'armchair conservationists' sitting in our nice houses in overpopulated and overdeveloped UK belching out carbon as if it's a competition, but these people are so poor.
For many in this country as elsewhere in sub-saharan Africa, wood is a basic daily necessity.
Tanji Bird Reserve was established mainly through the efforts of Clive Barlow, the author of the superb Field Guide to Birds of The Gambia and Senegal.
Clive, a local lad from the other side of Preston has been living in the Gambia as a professional bird guide for some years now and if you want to pay someone to show you the birds of the country, he's probably the best.
I don't have any contact info but if you google his name, something will come up. Being a photographer, I tend not to use guides, but many years ago I approached the famous and apparently highly respected Lamin Sidibegh (my spelling).
We agreed to meet at the Kombo Beach Hotel the following day. I wasn't staying there but it was mutually convenient. When I arrived, he'd run up a huge drinks bill in the bar on my tab, believing I was staying there.
He was that pissed he was literally falling over.
After we agreed a price, he then took me to all the well known stake-outs that I already knew about and demanded a new fee in excess of what we'd agreed.
I dragged him out of the car and literally 'kicked his arse'.
I then left him at the side of the road and looking back on the incident, am surprised I didn't end up in 2mile Prison.
Make of this what you will, but my own personal opinion for what it's worth is to avoid local guides.
There are hordes of them now plying their trade in the Kotu area. They're easy to spot with their binoculars but many haven't a clue and are just jumping on the 'bandwagon'. They often refer to bird species in general terms such as "de vulture, de shrike" etc. If you know a guide you've used before, great.
Put money back into the local economy. I'm all for it and they sure as hell need it.
The Gambian authorities probably consider coastal scrub as nothing more than wasteland, good only for hotel development.
It's apparently very important not only for some resident species but also palearctic migrants such as Melodious & Subalpine Warbler, Redstart and Nightingale.
Little Bee-eaters, the world's smallest, like hunting in the lower air-space close to the ground and are very common in this sort of habitat.
The one in the attached photo was in some nice coastal scrub attached to the hotel grounds. It looks like it's warming up in the dawn light which may seem odd, but when you've been flying around chasing insects all day in temperatures approaching 100 F., 75 F. at night might feel cold.
I built a small bird bath in the scrub using a bin liner (I always carry one in my camera holdall when abroad) and that's where the Black-rumped Waxbill was photographed.
It was so hot, I had to frequently replenish the water supply. In the afternoon, I'd put about 8 litres in and by the morning, most had evaporated.
I was only in the country for a week so didn't photograph many species. The star bird for me though was the male Northern Red Bishops. I've seen them in western Kenya as well as the Gambia, but they've always been in non-breeding plumage. The males then look like short-tailed female House Sparrows with crown stripes. This year the summer rains have apparently been good and the birds were nesting late.
Driving along the main road east of Pirang, I found many males in breeding plumage displaying in the elephant grass and sorghum fields at the side of the road. The film I use, Fuji Velvia is well known for its deep colour saturation and is particularly sensitive to greens and reds so I knew these stupendous bright red males against the green grass had the makings of a stunning picture & I wasn't wrong.
They were easy to photograph from the car. When they see a female, the males go ballistic with a spectacular display. They puff their mantle & crown feathers up like little puff-balls and set off on a strange hovering/bobbing flight, a bit like Sean Connery in Thunderball (I think) when he escapes from the building with a jet-pack on his back. They also make some weird sounds while doing this. A crackling raspy song that sounds like static electricity (or maybe it's the wings?).
One afternoon while photographing the Bishops, I had my only mishap of the trip; the starter motor conked out. 4 tiny young boys duly appeared out of the surrounding bush, their flashing white teeth almost blinding me as they smiled and offered to push-start me. I was in a long wheel-base Mitsubishi 4WD that looked like tank and thought "there is no way these tiny kids are going to push this vehicle".
We agreed a fee of 50 Dh (aboutÃÂ£1.50) and as I walked back to the vehicle, one said "you pay us first", obviously mindful of the fact that I could possibly just drive off.
I released the hand-brake and the vehicle flew down the road. I don't know where they got the strength from but I was impressed. I gave them 100 Dh. and they ran off into the bush waiving the crisp new note above their heads, screaming wildly.
A little further down the road at a police check-point, I told the guy what had happened and that I thought maybe their mother would confiscate the money. "Not necessarily" he replied. "It depends if they have been educated. If they have been to school, they will know to keep the money in their pockets".
Obviously Business Studies is high on the Gambian school curriculum. I drove back to the car-hire firm and 5 miles from base, the engine blew up with smoke everywhere.
I started walking back with all my gear in the heat, but a local guy outside his house by the side of the road offered to take me in his car for 100 Dh.
He gave me his e-mail address and said "maybe I can come to England and stay with you". The usual crap you get whenever you make contact with anyone on the coast as they desperately try to 'escape' from the poverty but you can't solve their problems and you have to detach yourself from this.
That idiot Geldof thinks otherwise and believes it's all our fault. "Has he ever been to Africa?"
I sometimes wonder. Long after my last visit 20 years ago, I think it was 1994, there was a military coup in the Gambia and the head of the military installed himself as leader. On this visit, I noticed large billboards at the side of the road with the smiling leader in traditional robes 'looking down at his tribe' and underneath something like "thank you for 14 wonderful years".
I'm sure they have been as he counts all the money in his Swiss bank account. I have to be careful what I say here as I'm hoping to go back next year.
There's an English missionary languishing in Mile2 Prison near the junction with Bund Road, accused of sedition. I've never been inside thank God! but have seen it from the outside (It's adjacent to Banjul rubbish tip) and you don't need a vivid imagination to picture the horrors inside.
The African Pygmy Kingfisher was photographed in Abuko, at one time the country's most famous and only reserve. It was photographed from one of the so called photo-hides up by the animal orphanage (a small zoo really).
You can book in advance for sole use and a small fee. This is handy as it avoids the bird photographer's perennial problem, human disturbance.
The Pygmy Kingfisher, one of the world's smallest, is a typical dry habitat species found in forest and dense scrub.
They're insectivorous and regularly come to the small pool in front of the hide to bathe. The only problem is they're quick and usually dart back into cover after diving into the water. You also need 'fill-flash' as the light is poor but as you can see from the attached shot, I was very lucky.
To give your readers a taste of the country, I've attached a shed load of pictures from 20 years ago.
They were taken on Kodachrome 64, considered 'de rigueur' by serious wildlife photographers at the time but showing it's age now.
Variously described as rain forest and forest savanna mosaic, Abuko, a very small reserve is not really rain forest, more like riverine forest and dense savanna scrub but it's good for birds and monkeys too.
Western Red Colobus, an endangered species due to habitat destruction and the 'bush-meat' trade, is common in Abuko and easily seen. I found the place a little run down, 20 years on. Lethargic disinterested staff and several of the photo-hides overgrown with vegetation and out of use.
5 species of Roller occur in the Gambia and I've attached 3 of them.
Abysinnian is a local breeder in the country but very common in the dry season when birds from the sahel to the north disperse after the rainy season. Very common on roadside telegraph wires and one of the first birds seen en route from the airport to the hotels.
Blue-bellied is a west African speciality that appears to have a close affinity with oil-palms. They frequently nest in the hollow trunks of dead ones but have also been recorded eating the fleshy fruits. This one was photographed in Abuko.
Green Turacos are large noisy west african forest birds that can be difficult to see. They like to remain within the dense foilage and are usually seen flying across gaps between the canopy in noisy groups. Interestingly, the name was apparently believed to be derived from the word turacin which I am led to believe is a water soluble copper compound used in the dyeing industry and which apparently occurs in high concentrations in the bright red wing feathers of all turacos. Some scientists have speculated that maybe this is an adaptation that allows the birds to rid themselves of potentially poisonous metal compounds present in some of the forest fruits the birds eat. The general concensus however is that the name is west african in origin and derives from the loud raucous calls turacos utter. Having heard and seen many species in africa, my money is on the latter.
Rufous-crowned Roller is one of the largest and looks quite drab compared to the others but when they fly, they have more blue in the wings than any roller I've ever seen. They're apparently a local dry season visitor and erratic in numbers but this year, I saw loads. They like recently burnt areas of open savanna and this one was photographed 20 years ago along a sandy track that connects the main road to Soma with the road to Selety. It's very sandy in places and you need 4WD but first thing in the morning it can be good for open country species and raptors.
This is where I photographed the Bateleur. These spectacular birds of prey get their name from the French word which apparently means tight-rope walker and refers to the birds strange and distinctive canting flight.
Apart from albatrosses, the Bateleur must be one of the world's most aerodynamic birds. The late Leslie Brown, a Scotsman who settled in Kenya and became one of the world's foremost experts on birds of prey, once described this species as "one of the most extraordinary, spectacular and specialised of all land birds".
But despite their spectacular appearance, the Bateleur is an habitual scavenger, regularly feeding on road kills. In east africa where this species is very common, they're regularly seen quatering along the country's main roads on the look-out for road casualties. The Mombassa highway through Tsavo National Park is a good place to see them; they're not common in the Gambia.
Other species taken from the photo-hides at Abuko include the Shikra, sub-sahara's answer to the Sparrowhawk and Pied Kingfisher.
Most of the other species, Greenshank, Wattled Plover and the stonking female Painted Snipe were photographed at the site near to Kotu that sadly is no more.
Painted Snipe are common in the Gambia but can be hard to find. Apart from being secretive and superbly camouflaged, they're crepuscular in their habits, being mainly active during the early morning and evening. I was very lucky to find the birds and was just as secretive as they were. This shot would not have been possible with hordes of birders around. I remember while sitting in the car, everytime a birder or anyone else for that matter approached to see what I was up to, the birds would slink off and disappear into the waterside vegetation.
Possibly the most famous bird in the Gambia is the enigmatic Egyptian Plover. To have a real chance of seeing one, you need to travel upriver to the small town of Basse.
From November to the New Year, small groups regularly occur by the riverside jetty. It's an horrendous journey of some 260 miles, especially on your own and takes between 7-9 hours.
As you travel further east up country it gets even hotter and you need to take lots of water with you. I've done it twice and on both occasions the major problem for me, was where to stay.
When I went up there 20 years ago, the only place was the famous or should it be infamous Apollo Hotel. As you can see from the pictures it's a dump. No lights and it was like an oven. No air-con with the corrugated iron roof re-radiating the daytime heat.
I'm sorry about the shorts and white socks but they were all the fashion then, honestly!
Apart from gallons of bottled water, I survived on biscuits and cold baked beans from a jar for 3 days. Some of you may be wondering "why a hotel there?"
Well I don't want to offend anyone but for those of you who don't know, in many parts of sub-saharan africa, the word hotel is a euphemism for brothel and the Apollo was no exception.
Apart from locking my room door, I barricaded it with a large heavy hard-wood table that was in the room and had to endure constant knocking on the door with male and female voices shouting "mister englishman. open the door". It's funny now but at the time it was a bit scary. I also had to endure mice and the biggest cockroaches I've ever seen attacking my biscuits.
There are many special birds up there apart from Egyptian Plovers. Red-throated Bee-eaters are a local speciality. They're common in the sahel from Senegal across to Ethiopia, but in the Gambia are only found upriver in URD (upper river district). Their habits make them hard to connect with. They arrive at the breeding grounds towards the end of the rainy season (October) when the normally hard laterite soils in the region are still soft and workable. Once the nest burrows have been excavated, the birds disperse and become nomadic, returning just before the next rainy season (April?) to time their breeding cycle to coincide with the abundance of insects that occurs during the rains. 20 years ago, I was very lucky to find an active colony, nest excavating in a dry gully almost in the centre of town in December, which I believe is quite late.
Egyptian Plovers are sometimes called 'crocodile birds' but both names are really quite inaccurate. The name 'crocodile bird' has been documented as far back as the ancient greeks in the writings of Herodotus and the name refers to the alleged habit of picking the teeth of basking crocodiles.
The most recent evidence of this habit comes from the late, now disredited Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen. The bird has been well studied in recent years and there is no modern documentary evidence of what now appears to be a myth. The more familiar name is not much better. For one thing, they haven't occurred in Egypt for a long time, possibly over 100 years and they're not plovers.
The shot of the bird standing erect and alert gives a clue.
Their closest relatives are the coursers, birds normally associated with dry desert habitat in africa, the middle east & india. Egyptian Plovers breed further upstream in Senegal and disperse after the breeding season, when they regularly occur at Basse.
First thing in the morning, they feed around the ferry jetty and are quite tame and confiding. Later on as the area becomes busy with people, they disperse often to nearby riverside gullies and can be difficult to find. Their breeding biology is interesting. They nest on exposed sand-bars on the larger rivers in the drier parts of west & central Africa. They're supposed to be widespread and locally common but for British birders, the options are limited.
Years ago apparently, one of the best known stake-outs was the capital of the Sudan, Khartoum, at the confluence of the Blue & White Nile, but if you read the papers regularly, you'll know that this venue is 'no-go' for westerners. They apparently partially bury the eggs in the sand and protect them from the scorching sun by squatting over them and wetting them with water brought in their absorbant belly feathers. As I said before, you have to time your trip carefully to have a chance of seeing them. I'm not sure of the current situation but they used to arrive in November and return upstream in January to breed. They have occured in other parts of the Gambia.
A recent trip list I found on the internet had a record of several birds at Buiba Swamp, an unusual place for this species. The main road traverses this good birding area east of Soma en route to Basse and is where the Yellow-billed Stork was photographed.
There was a breeding colony years ago in the nearby village of Jappeni and is probably where these birds came from, but I don't know if they still breed there.
Anyway John, enjoy the pics and you might think of going out there one day.
Wonderful Mike, thanks for the report and stunning pix - Gambia appears to knock the Sands Lake at Ainsdale into a cocked hat...
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...