GIANT KINGFISHER Megaceryle maxima. Just one of the fantastic birds to be found at Abuko Nature Reserve.
We arrived in The Gambia to what can only be described as a heatwave - getting off the plane late afternoon was like the proverbial ‘sticking one’s head in the oven’!
However, once being reunited with our luggage and negotiating our way through the very interesting queue in the terminal, we set off for our hotel, enjoying our first roadside Rufous-crowned Roller en route shortly followed by a very welcome cold drink!
Our first birding was as usual, close to the hotel. Kotu Creek is only a few hundred metres away and a splendid way to introduce groups to the birdlife of Gambia. Over the next 30 minutes we enjoyed great views of Red-billed Hornbill, Pied Kingfisher, Senegal Thick-knee, Red-cheeked Cordonbleu, Spur-winged and African Wattled Plovers, African Thrush, Beautiful Sunbird, Long-tailed and Purple Glossy Starlings, Laughing and Red-eyed Dove, Fanti Saw-wing, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird and the bizarre Western Grey Plantain-eater (or far easier to use the old name, The Go-away bird).
These quintessentially African species were feeding alongside Eurasian Whimbrel, Curlew, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Grey Plover and Squacco Heron. The mud simply heaved with fiddler crabs and the air was filled with the calls of African Palm and Little Swifts - a perfect way to start our week-long tour!
Most days started on the beach by our hotel, standing in the cool early morning enjoying Caspian, Royal and Sandwich Terns flying past with Grey-headed Gulls, Cattle Egrets, Yellow-billed Kites and Hooded Vultures for company, whilst Eurasian Whimbrels ‘whinnied’ overhead.
Heading into Brufrut Woods on our first morning, the first bird we put the scope on was a brilliant male Klaas’s Cuckoo, this was followed shortly afterwards by a superb male Violet-backed Starling; in itself a rare bird for Gambia this time of year. Nearby we enjoyed great views of Vinacaeous Dove, Splendid and Variable Sunbird, African Yellow White-eye, African Harrier-hawk, African Green Pigeon and a very wary Verreaux’s Eagle Owl roosting in the centre of a huge Acacia.
Our luck was clearly ‘in’ and this theme continued at Abuko and as we enjoyed extended views of male and female Giant Kingfisher only a few metres away from the diminutive Malachite, a male Western Bluebill at close range, several Palmnut Vultures, beautifully iridescent Violet Turacos and finally a Hamerkop gliding back and forth with huge collections of nesting material, some so large that the birds hammer-shaped head was completely obscured!
One of the treats of visiting Gambia in autumn is the opportunity to see the bishops and whydahs in their full breeding dress. The male Northern Red Bishop is particularly stunning with his rather flamboyant ‘fluorescent’ orange and glossy black plumage and was one such example of this quite spectacular family. Later on in the tour we encountered the similar Black-winged Red Bishop which again was stunning but the icing on the cake was the superb Yellow-crowned Bishop; a bright yellow and black apparition whizzing back and forth across the juncus, seemingly always at the same height and at great speed - just like a black and yellow tennis ball being hurled across the marsh. What a great bird!
As we started heading downriver exploring new areas and new habitats we came across lots of new birds and indeed lots of new families. Examples of this were African Black Crake, Senegal Parrot, Grayish Eagle Owl, Blue-bellied Roller, Fine Spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Shrike and the next few days produced a weath of species ranging from the elusive Yellow-crowned Gonolek to the very showy Swallow-tailed and Little Bee-eaters. Raptors were well represented with Dark Chanting-goshawk, Wahlberg’s, Ayre’s and African Hawk Eagles, Lizard Buzzard, Lanner and Red-necked Falcon, Beadouin’s and Brown Snake Eagles with single Black-shouldered Kite and African Hobby also seen.
Heading along the north bank of the River Gambia we soon came across lots more really special birds. At a renowned wetland spot we enjoyed a flock of over 3000 Collared Pratincoles, both Woolly-necked and Yellow-billed Storks, White-headed Plover, Mosque Swallow and both Exclamatory Paradise and Pin-tailed Whydahs - both with full tails! Careful searching here amongst the dark mud produced the bird that everyone wants to see when they come to The Gambia - the Egyptian Plover!
Enjoying great telescope views of 4 birds, we then located a further 4 at a nearby site and on our return journey another 6 or maybe even 8, so a minimum total of 14 in all, including one individual walking across the road! The combination of pale blue-grey, back and white, combined with that rich peachy coloured breast makes this species unmistakeable and highly sought-after. Drawing ourselves away from the Egyptian Plovers we headed further east along the river.
Heading another 30km east along the North Bank bought us to the point at which we had to turn around and head back, however our reason for driving that liitle way further was the mixed Bee-eater colony nearby. Arriving at the site the sky was full of Red-throated and Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, together with a handful of the diminutive Little Green Bee-eater. We enjoyed great views of the bee-eaters as they sallied back and forth, momentarily joined by a Mottled Spinetail Swift, and nearby we found a pair of Abyssinian Rollers which performed very well as did a Levaillant’s Cuckoo and a handful of Green Wood-hoopoes. We headed back to the ferry via a watering hole which held Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Red-billed Quelea and Village Indigobird whilst nearby a male Savile’s Bustard called continuously but remained hidden in the long grass.
Our week in The Gambia had produced just under 250 species of bird, lots of colourful butterflies, both Green Vervet and Red Colobus Monkeys, Crocodile, Monitor Lizard, Gambian Sun Squirrel, Agama Lizard and a Mongoose sp. which just managed to evade the cameras. Add to this great weather, good food and wine and an enthusiastic group and you have the perfect recipe for a great week birding in The Gambia!