For birders on a budget, or perhaps nervous first-timers to Africa, the Gambia offers some of the best of the continent’s bird life without the expense of a safari. This tiny West African country is not only the closest Sub-Saharan African destination to the UK but is also served by numerous package companies offering budget winter breaks. A short family holiday opens up a wealth of birding around beach and hotel, while serious birders can head upriver to catch an even greater variety. With more than 660 recorded species, you are spoilt for choice.
The top tick for many birders to The Gambia is the Egyptian plover. This dapper wader – known as the ‘crocodile bird’, from a mythical belief that it picks clean the great reptiles’ teeth – frequents sandbanks on low-lying inland rivers. It occurs in The Gambia from October to January, with numbers peaking in November. To find one, you’ll need to take the bumpy journey upriver to Basse or Nyanga Bantang Wetlands. The good news is that the species is very confiding, and travelling inland should also produce other up-country specials, such as northern carmine bee-eater and long-tailed paradise whydah.
Abuko Nature Reserve
This bijou 134ha nature reserve lies only 25km outside the capital Banjul but offers abundant birdlife, with its rich habitat mosaic home to more than 270 species. Forest specials such as green-crested turaco and brown-throated wattle-eye flit through the mature gallery forest; black herons and African jacanas are among numerous wetland species that haunt the forest pools; while African pied hornbills flap between tree tops in the savanna areas. Look out, too, for red colobus monkeys, bushbuck and the odd crocodile. The trails are clearly signposted, and hides along the route allow excellent photography.
Mangroves line the tidal reaches of the Gambia River for some distance inland. Their muddy, brackish creeks – festooned with the air-breathing roots of mangrove trees – are crammed with marine and invertebrate life and offer a magnet to birds of all kinds. A boat trip through this intriguing world, perhaps poled by a boatman in a dugout pirogue, will produce herons, spoonbills, storks and ibis stalking the shallows; roosts of pelicans and terns loafing on the muddy sandbars; and more elusive species, such as blue flycatcher, African finfoot of even Pel’s fishing owl, lurking among the shadowy tangle.
Home from home
Not only is The Gambia crammed with African specialities: it also provides wintering quarters for numerous Afro-palearctic migrants – species that European birders tend to think of as ‘theirs’. Check out any patch of coastal woodland from October to March and, among the drongos, barbets and other locals, you can expect to find the likes of nightingale, turtles dove and numerous warblers. Meanwhile, curlew sandpipers, bar-tailed godwits and other northern waders flock along the shoreline, pomarine skuas chase sandwich terns above the waves, and ospreys – feeding up before their return journey to Scotland and Scandinavia – plunge into the tropical surf.
Birding made easy
The beauty of the Gambia is that the coastal strip – where all the resorts are situated – is simply packed with birds. So if all you have time and energy for is a ‘winter sun’ family break, then you need hardly stray beyond your hotel or beach to notch up an impressive list. In the popular Kotu Creek and Fajara resort areas, for example, you will find such beauties as robin-chats, gonoleks, sunbirds, firefinches, weavers and hornbills in the hotel gardens, while a stroll to the beach or across the nearby golf course might produce rollers, raptors and perhaps even a roosting pearl-spotted owl.
This article was written for Focusing on Wildlife by Mike Unwin.