Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Gambia: Day 1 - The Journey

7th December:  

The journey began back in the summer when I was approached by Sunbird with a view to becoming a tour leader for a couple of weeks a year to cover parts of Eastern Europe. I was delighted by this and it was suggested that I would be sent on a trip in the near future so that I could see how the company led their tours and they could see how I managed the clients... and coped. I had expected a European destination and so, was somewhat surprised to discover that The Gambia was on the cards...

Fast forward several months and I found myself sitting comfortably on a Titan Air plane at Gatwick with severe rain delaying our departure on a cold windy winter’s morning but we were eventually airborne on a somewhat turbulent flight south to the Gambia, tucked away on the west coast of Africa.

The journey took us over Iberia before coasting across Morocco and following the sea and beach south through Mauritania and northern Senegal. This took us over the western coastal fringes of the Sahara and although I have visited various parts of the northern countries, I was still not prepared for the immensity and majesty of this vast arid land.

Even from 36,000 feet the air was so clear that you could make out individual trees in the dry wadis; the filigree of dry streams descending the escarpments, leading into bigger and bigger channels and eventually full scale arid rivers; debris flow cones spilling onto the plains; salt encrusted surfaces shining in the sun; extinct volcanic cones worn down to dark circular nubs in the sand and folded mountains writhing across the landscape like contorted switchback serpents. The geographer in me was captivated.

And to think that so many of our Palearctic migrants battle across this endless Mars-like landscape twice a year in their epic journey to and from the lush greenness of Europe had never been more poignantly exposed.

Just how many die in the waterless inferno below is beyond thought and I promised myself to look with even more respect and awe at our humble warblers, chats, hirundines, wagtails, Cuckoos and Turtle Doves.

Eventually the landscape started to change and water began to appear below us in sinuous curves bordered by lush green belts of comforting Mangroves. Our destination was now not far away and we soon crossed the Gambia River on our descent into Banjul airport.

I always look for a first bird and usually it is a corvid or Cattle Egret or a pigeon of some description. It turned out to be a the latter with a flock of Speckled Pigeons becoming the first tick of the trip only to be followed by three Hooded Vultures as we stepped out into the warm early evening sunshine to board the bus to the terminal.

I had accompanied three of the Sunbird party out there, Gill from Hampshire and Shawn and Austin from America and we soon met up with Paul French and one of our guides, Santos, in the terminal before the bus ride to our hotel at Kombo Beach in Kotu.

I was glued to the window as we wended our way through the curious rush hour traffic checking everything avian and quickly realising that Yellow-billed Kites, Hooded Vultures and the hulking Pied Crows were the mainstay of urban birding with birds loafing around on rooftops, mango trees and road signs.  Doves and Pigeons were on every wire and Paul pointed out Laughing and Red-eyed Doves and chunky Speckled Pigeons seemed to fill the Woodpigeon role in shape and size.

Curious black Piapiacs were on the verges like big headed Magpies and I spied our first Western Grey Plantain Eaters (a type of Turaco) whilst stuck in traffic, as it clambered around a tree top while Starling sized White Billed Buffalo Weavers moved around their large stick nests high in the Baobabs.  Red-billed Hornbill and a Yellow-billed Shrike were seen on the journey too but at least a male Marsh Harrier cut a familiar shape.

With the light fading fast we only had a quick ten minutes at the famous Kotu Bridge. It was a magical first session with the hustle and bustle of Kotu life going on around us.  The exposed creek mud held 27 Senegal Thick-knees along with Whimbrel, Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpipers, Stilts and Spur-winged Plovers while Western Reef and a water shading Black Heron were both new and side by side.  Cattle, Great White and Little Egret continued the theme and a solitary Pink-backed Pelican swam low to net his supper.

A childhood dream of bird appeared below us – my first Hamerkop – the curious little brown heron-stork thingy with the double pointy head while a glance up added at least 50 African Palm Swifts to the growing tally of new birds.

Hamerkop - all my other bird pictures were just too wobbly in the low light and shaking hands!

A female Splendid Sunbird showed in the mangroves and two Wire-tailed Swallows perched on a stick with noisy chittering Pied Kingfishers jostling for position on the bridge hand rail and adjacent posts. Flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks headed to their roost sites and will forever now be known as Weeweewee Ducks and the whistle stop introduction was concluded with a tiny electric blue and orange Malachite Kingfisher staring intently into the creek for his dinner.

Check in, meet up with Gene and John our Canadian duo, conduct bird log, drink beer, eat dinner and then find the bed although sleep was somewhat hard to come by, what with a selection of vivid avian memories (including 18 new birds!) already emblazoned on my internal screen...

How on earth would I cope with a full day in the field?

A beer with a potential tick on it... but would we see a Woodland Kingfisher?