Wednesday 2 January 2019

The Gambia: Day 6: Tendaba, the Swamp & the long road West...

12th December:

Not the best of nights sleep with some Mosquito net issues but I somehow come out of it unscathed before heading over for an early breakfast so that we could catch our powered canoe across the river to the mangrove swamp of the Bao Bolong nature reserve.

We ambled past a confiding Hamerkop and a couple of Yellow-billed Kites as we walked across the beach to the jetty where Little Swifts were careening around madly and dashing under the decaying concrete structure.


Our ride awaits

Boarding the boat was an interesting exercise in balance and commitment but the entire group made it without incident and we were soon underway across the tranquil stillness passing the odd Gull-billed and Caspian Tern on the way and countless hundreds of white butterflies heading determinedly back the way we had just come in an exodus of flickering confetti.

Caspian Tern

The boat was aimed at a dark area in the mangrove edge which soon became a wide channel which we puttered along for the next three hours.  We were heading slowly against the outgoing tide and diverted onto small channels where the mangroves almost touched both sides with arching limbs reaching for the water to root down in the silt while in other places submerged roots struck for the air and poked from the mud like reaching fingers.

There were birds all around and proper birding from a small wooden boat was a new experience but incredibly rewarding.  Keeping a camera steady and working with constantly fluctuating light conditions was equally challenging and the heat haze was again an issue but I concentrated on using my bins and seeing everything I could as well as possible with eyes and ears straining, recording and storing.

Fish eating birds unsurprisingly accounted for much of the avian biomass encountered with a huge colony of White-breasted Cormorants dominating a vast rookery with all the associated noise of adults and begging chicks and the smell of tonnes of fishy guano covering the nest trees.

White-breasted Cormorants

White-breasted Cormorants

White-breasted Cormorants

African Darters were omnipresent and occasionally even stayed put long enough for a pic or two but for the most part they simply just fell off their perches and plummeted from whatever height straight into the murky waters.

African Darter

Now, with a long snaky neck and pointy bill you may have thought that these odd looking birds would enter the water Gannet like with bill leading the way but no, they enter chest first with the head pulled back and an almighty splash that scares the dohdahs out of you the first time it happens at close range.

And that would be the last of it... no trail of bubbles or a surreptitious head appearing from the surface – they just vanished.  Perhaps the splash is to scare of the West African Crocodiles and prevent any accidental impaling of said reptiles by plummeting avian daggers? I was especially pleased to actually two of these huge armoured beasts slipping into the water.

African Darter

My first West African Crocodile... no trailing hands in the water

Intermediate Egrets seemed to outnumber Great Whites and it was good to get better views of this odd looking species that, when feeding, seems to resemble a Cattle Egret that has been jammed into a Little Egrets body. 

Intermediate Egret

Intermediate Egrets

Great White Egret

Great White Egret

A couple of lemon shaped Striated Herons lurked just into the leaves along with several roosting Black Crowned Night Herons but of the elusive and very shy White Backed Night Herons there was no sign and our diligent searching suggested that the bossy Black Crowns had pushed them from their roost but there was so much to see that this mild disappointment did not last.

Striated Heron

Grey Herons and Western Reef Herons watched our passing and we eventually came upon a beast of a Goliath Heron that lived up to and beyond my expectations. The bill on it was simply obscene. It did not linger long and it lumbered off on vulture sized wings.

Grey Heron

Western Reef Heron

Western Reef Heron

Goliath Heron

Goliath Heron - Paul French

Goliath Heron

A single Purple Heron and several Little and Cattle Egrets joined the party and both African and Eurasian Spoonbill were seen along with many Sacred Ibis.  White Breasted Cormorants passed over continually and Pink-backed Pelicans were spooked from the river ahead in a panic of foot slapping and rushing wings.

African Spoonbill

Sacred Ibis

Long-tailed Cormorant, Sacred Ibis & Intermediate Egret
Pink-backed Pelican

A party of 29 Great White Pelicans were resting up on a shallow pool actually above the level of the channel we were in and a timely bend got us close enough for sensational views. Around their huge feet there were Spur Winged Lapwings and good flocks of both Ruff and Whimbrel while Little Ringed Plovers, Wood Sandpipers, Greenshank and at least two Marsh Sandpipers were found.  Flava Wagtails called and included a buzzy sounding bird but they never dropped in where we could see them.

Great White Pelicans

Great White Pelicans

Great White Pelicans

Great White Pelicans
Three Hamerkops were seen and I was especially pleased to see a huge nest occupying a tree complete with the entrance hole near the bottom like some scaled up untidy Weaver nest but big enough to house at least a herd of goats... Four Woolly Necked Storks were feeding in one of the water meadows and we got lucky and found a single very smart Yellow-billed Stork feeding in a tiny sub channel that we would have missed just a few minutes later while Weeweewee Ducks (sorry) were spooked as we rounded a corner and circled back behind us allowing better views as we retraced out route. They really are very dapper close up.

Woolly Necked Stork

Yellow-billed Stork

White-faced Whistling Duck
Common Sandpipers, Whimbrels and Greenshanks were feeding along the creek egdes and their calls filled the air but the Senegal Thick-knees we saw under the mangroves were keeping quiet and out of the sun.

The ubiquitous Kites drifted around and a Lizard Buzzard sat up high in a huge Baobab tree that was full of Buffalo Weavers nests and two Ring-necked Parakeets. Aby Rollers, Fork-tailed Drongos and Senegal Coucals were encountered in the creekside bushes.

Buffalo Weavers nests

Senegal Coucal

Senegal Coucal

Fork-tailed Drongo

An immature African Fish Eagle drifted over but we never did see a fine adult perched up in classic documentary style but a Palm Nut Vulture doing just that had us momentarily fooled.

Palm Nut Vulture

Kingfishers were a constant theme and even after six days I was still finding it difficult to take in that seeing four species from a small boat in a morning was normal.

Pied and huge billed Blue-breasted were the most frequently seen; the latter singing mournfully from the trees on both sides but frequently perching up on dead snags.

Pied Kingfisher

Blue-breasted Kingfisher

Blue-breasted Kingfisher

Three pocket rocket Malachites zipped around and a single Grey Headed stayed put after having a morning bath.   There were smiles all round as this is not an easy species here.

Malachite Kingfisher

Malachite Kingfisher

Grey Headed Kingfisher

Grey Headed Kingfisher

The only Sunbird in the swamp is the specialised Mouse Brown and we heard them on the entire journey and often saw them flick across the channel but eventually we got lucky and two of this rather dull species lingered on a dead branch for long enough to raise the bins.

Their nests were occasionally seen but only on snags stuck in the channel where they were completely safe being surrounded by water and above the high tide mark.  One was occupied and we could see a curved bill and beady eye before it sat back down.

Mouse Brown Sunbird

Occupied Mouse Brown Sunbird nest

A couple of very bright Sedge Warblers foraged in the reeds and a Great Reed Warbler ‘gurked’ a little too deep in to be seen while a good look at a couple of Weavers added Black-headed to the tally thanks, to Solomon’s quick eye.

European and Blue Cheeked Bee-eaters were drifting through high in small flocks and it was good to hear the latter calling – one day I will pick one up in Lesvos in the spring!

Some came lower and forayed from dead trees giving me my best views ever of a species I had only ever encountered from the boat on the Nile many moons ago. Some Europeans did the same and not long afterwards I found a couple of White-throated Bee-eaters performing the same aerial manoeuvres. The may not be as strikingly coloured as the others of their tribe but the black and white stripy head gives them a real bandit look!

Blue Cheeked Bee-eaters

European Bee-eaters

White-throated Bee-eater

Wattle-eyes were singing from cover but never showed and a similar fate awaited us with the equally elusive African Blue Flycatcher but the birding gods were smiling down on us and with a little coaxing we managed to get onto at least two of this delightful species as they flicked through a fairly open fronted mangrove. Ash blue is actually a good colour to blend in with the myriad of greens but we all got a good look at the pointy head and long fanned tail.

Our guides were as pleased as us to actually see this delightful species so well rather than leaving with memories of melodic song and fleeting flashes through the foliage. Too soon the creek began to widen and we emerged once more onto the mirror calm main river with the sound of Blue Breasted Kingfishers echoing behind us as we ‘phut phutted’ our way back to Tendaba after yet another top drawer experience.

Far to the west there were huge billowing clouds of grass smoke and these fires were visible in several directions by the time we had finished our lunch in Tendaba and loaded the bus ready for the long journey back west to Kotu.

There was time enough to stop at Terminal One again especially as the Ground Hornbills had been seen there the evening before. We had no joy but there was plenty to see with a roosting flock of Gull-billed and Caspian Terns, three Wood Sandpipers and better views of Wattled Lapwings

Chestnut- backed Sparrow-larks were disturbed and two other small sandy larks were seen as they flew low over us.  There was little to go on but they had a fairly fine downcurved bill and breast streaking and if memory serves me correct John had seen them on the deck and crests were noted which points in the direction of Sunlarks.  It was just a pity that they did not land again – nevermind.

Similarly a party of hirundines moved through that included Red-chested Swallows and House Martins but with them were two very robust Red-rumped types – bigger than that species and the Rufous-chested Swallows seen yesterday with richly coloured underparts fading to pale towards the upper breast and throat – Mosque Swallows.

There was another hirundines with the flock too – House Martin-like in the strong sunlight but with the appearance of a grey rump. The jury is still out on this one and I am hoping that Austin still has a picture of it. I cannot honestly remember whether there were tail streamers or not so was it a first winter House Martin or the much more unusual Grey Rumped Swallow? I will update one way or the other when I find out!

Vultures and Kites circled way in the distance where more smoke was piling into the still air and a Wahlberg’s Eagle and Grey Kestrel were both seen. Small Hornbills flopped between trees and a couple of Little Bee-eaters became the fourth species for the day and gave me my best views so far.

Little Bee-eater

We hit the road and made a couple of short stops along the straight route back.  Amazingly Santos found no less than three Bateleur from the front seat with both sexes and a juvenile seen within a hour. There was time to get off the bus and watch the first one cruise away but the juvenile was clocked at 80kmh keeping pace with the bus with not a single beat of those wonderfully odd wings until it chose to bank and sweep away to the north.

Bateleur- just awesome

A spiral of big Vultures was observed and contained a couple of White-backs amongst the Griffs and Ruppell’s with a few Hooded making it a nice foursome. 

White-backed Vulture

White-backed Vulture

Vulture sp

Griffon Vulture

A Long Crested Eagle was possibly one of the highlights of the day as it posed in a roadside tree, peering around for prey on the ground while that preposterous crest blew around behind it. For a medium sized eagle, you would not have wanted to have an argument with those talons!

Long Crested Eagle

Long Crested Eagle

Blue Breasted Rollers started to appear more regularly and Aby Rollers were now seldom encountered but it was Rufous Crowned Roller that we had yet to see but some quality finding from the bus by the guys in full Action Man Eagle-eye mode, added a pair of this species. A big headed bird with a bushy white superc and streaky plum underparts and wings that looked like petrol and royal blue in flight.  One bird stayed put in its acacia with a Shikra for company and the other moved to a telegraph pole vantage point but refused to let us get the sun in a better position.

Blue Breasted Roller

Blue Breasted Roller

Rufous-crowned Roller

Rufous-crowned Roller

The rest of the drive may have included occasional bouts of semi-consciousness but I do remember seeing some Cattle Egrets in a wet field and two grey herons with black crowns and necks but we were past before the now faltering grey cells processed them as Black-headed Herons. Hopefully there would be a chance of them on the last full day.

All too soon we were back in the colourful chaos of Kotu but there was still time for some more birding so we got dropped off about half a mile from the hotel and joined a proper paved path that led through a wild area of palms and scrub interspersed with pools and paddies.

Double Spurred Francolins were calling away and two bolted from cover while Yellow-billed Kites loafed around in the top of the trees. Flocks of mixed pigeons and doves disappeared into the rice spooking both Wattled and Spur-winged Lapwings with groups of Village Weavers zooming around and still, to my ears making noises like happy Crossbills.

Yellow-billed Kites

Spur-winged Lapwing

Wee wee wee

Three Coucals clambered clumsily around and always feel like they are slightly inebriated and we got some good views of White Billed Buffalo Weavers as they squabbled in an Acacia that also contained a strange looking thing that Paul identified as a female Northern Puffback.

Senegal Coucal

Santos had hopes of finding Pearl Spotted Owlet for us here and began to imitate its call. As usual lots of little birds got angry and piled in including four Tawny Flanked Prinias and both Blackcap and Brown Babblers.  They got even more agitated when an Owlet actually responded and came to see what was going on!

Tawny Flanked Prinia

Pearl Spotted Owlet

It glared down at us with fierce yellow eyes and head bobs to ascertain what we were.  Like Pygmy Owl, I believe it is a small bird specialist which is why it was now getting so much grief from the babblers before they forced it to retreat.

Presuming that this would be the last new bird of the day was a mistake as Santos then pulled a Woodland Kingfisher out of the bag, no more than 100m from the Kotu Bridge! It resembled a smaller, greyer headed Blue-breasted with a finer bill and aqua-marine mantle and it performed admirably despite the traffic and people whizzing by.

Woodland Kingfisher

Woodland Kingfisher

We did not stop at the bridge itself and headed for the hotel but I now wanted to see if I could add a fourth Roller and sixth Kingfisher to the day list so I dumped my gear and headed back to the bridge where both Broad-billed and Giant filled their respective family slots to complete a long day jammed full of new birds, experiences and sounds to file away on my internal hard drives.

male Giant Kingfisher

female Giant Kingfisher

female Giant Kingfisher


  1. You couldn’t fail to be impressed with the Goliath Heron and that Malacite is a real gem. Once again, a nice read Howard. Lawrence

  2. Hey Howard. What a great blog post! The pictures are spectacular! Thanks for sending the link.
    John Weier
    Winnipeg, Canada

  3. My pleasure John... track back to the start if you wish... it is all in there.
    A memorable trip and thank you for your company