Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Gambia: Day 3: In the jungle, the noisy jungle...

9th December:

I seem to remember some interesting ‘singing’ from the musical ensemble off by the pool last night and woke in need of my pre-dawn breakfast. A quick wander around the grounds of the hotel gave me better views of the stroppy Speckled Pigeons with their swollen red face wattles and I could hear Think-knees and Whimbrels up on the mangrove creek.

Speckled Pigeon

As we headed out again over the Kotu Bridge again, a glance revealed a snaky necked African Darter coming in to land but I was assured we would see many later in the trip.  The drive south saw four Blue-bellied Rollers on the wires with a couple of Yellow-billed Shrikes and a small flock of ten Wattled Lapwings.

The famous Pirang Forest was our destination and as we bumped down the track we spooked a Double Spurred Francolin from the verge that had the decency to actually land in view and give us a hard stare while flocks of weavers and mannikins zipped in and out of the tall grasses.

We were greeted by one of Solomon’s guides and slowly ambled off on foot on a sandy path into the dry jungle. The canopy was high above us and giant palms jostled for space above the tangled understory with Tarzan-quality lianas and spiky rattan reaching from top to bottom and veering off at impossible angles that defied logical growing directions!

There was sound all around us with only the (even now) familiar laughing of Plantain Eaters and bouncing ball of Black-billed Wood Doves being identifiable to me.  Wattle-eyes and Green Crombecs sang invisibly but were thankfully seen a little later and a troop of Blackcap Babblers with glowing white eyes were tempted into the open while up above Buff Spotted Woodpeckers gave chase around the higher branches.

Our group was almost silent as we crept along the trails. Little Greenbuls sang and were seen quite well and Ahanta Francolins manically called all around us but refused to make themselves visible.  I found it odd that the canopy looked so open and yet singing birds were almost impossible to see. It appeared that they often sat still to sing and then would dash at great speed to another spot and start again – it was most frustrating and I can only imagine what it would be like in a truly tropical jungle!

Such scanning of the tops brought us a Western Olivaceaous Warbler and a Willow Warbler as well as a male Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher that seldom sat still.

After negotiating an enormous African Honey Bee nest suspended below a branch we emerged into a clearing filled with tall grass still damp with dew.

African Honey Bee nest

Strange calls from behind revealed two Blue Bellied Rollers corresponding from tree tops while Senegal and Ring-necked Parakeets were noisily mobile and Plantain Eaters and both Red-billed and Grey Hornbills flopped across our view. Gonoleks were throwing their voices but remained hidden.

Blue Bellied Roller

Senegal Parrot

A Lizard Buzzard left its perch but we were immediately distracted by a Violet Turaco that glided in on red wings and sat at eye level not too far away. 

Violet Turaco

Bronze Mannikins, Black-necked and Village Weavers fed low down in the grasses and two young Lesser Honeyguides looked to waiting parents to return. Splendid, Variable and Beautiful Sunbirds flicked around us in splashes of shining colour and there was a steady background hum of a trillion Honey Bees.

While thinking of the bees, a familiar call caused me to look up as a group of at least 40 European Bee-eaters drifted over. Pallid, Palm and our first Little Swifts of the trip were with them as well as a solitary Sand Martin.

Hoodies and Kites were always on view and two Harrier Hawks surprised me with their size as I had always imagined that these double jointed raptors were only buzzard sized and not bigger than a Short-toed Eagle!

Harrier Hawks

A party of three shiny green Fanti Saw-wings zipped through the clearing and a Palm Nut Vulture drifted through while I correctly identified a beady eyed male Northern Puffback. It was turning into another of those overwhelming moments.

Heading back into the wood we picked up another couple of Buff Spotted as well as African Grey Woodpeckers and more foraging Weavers. Another Red-bellied Paradise Fly allowed everyone thankfully to see it before we started to notice that fruit was being dropped near us from way up above. It took a little while be eventually the culprit was located. I expected a monkey (we had heard Green Vervets) but it was in fact a very hefty Brown Necked Parrot; one of the star birds of this reserve and a really tricky species to see well.

Our patience was rewarded and eventually it moved enough that we could see the green plumage, orange epaulets and streaky brown head and huge ivory bill.

Brown Necked Parrot

Brown Necked Parrot

For our next bird utter silence was called for – it was time to try and tempt out the White Spotted Flufftails. Now, I had seen this miniscule crakelet in the book with the combination of entirely orange front half, black with white polka-dot middle and orange back end and wondered how anyone could find this on the forest floor.

Waiting for Flufftails

Arriving at the spot, Solomon’s man instructed us that we had to stay incredibly still and quiet and he would imitate the whistling song and attract them in. He even knew what entry point they would use and I was first to spot this delightful little bird creeping furtively across the forest floor. It performed a loop around us and we were all afforded excellent views as it popped out into mini-clearings between the twisted stems. Even at the highest settings my camera was almost a no go so I concentrated on actually looking at this seldom seen species.

White Spotted Flufftail - the fact that I got this is shot is quite remarkable

At about the same time 3,300 miles away, Alan Davies was taking this slightly better picture than mine in Uganda... our two did show this well though!

The guides were equally happy that their skills and that our patience had paid dividends as not every group is so fortunate. The Flufftails were not the only birds in our clearing; a pair of Wattle-eyes were foraging low down and showed very well and three Black-necked Weavers once again surprised us with their ability to quietly move around.

Just about a Wattle-eye

Suddenly a Nightingale-shape flicked across and into a thicket.  I got my bins up and could see a warm brown thrush-like bird with a pale throat and a buff front. I hadn’t got a clue and tried to get Paul onto it. Thankfully he saw it again a minute later and enquired with Solomon about whether they had Puvel’s Illadopsis here.  They looked surprised and I was left thinking that I could not even remember seeing that one in the book during my pre-trip revision. Apparently the Pirang is one of the few places where they occur in The Gambia but the guides had never seen one and the only records were from camera traps. Unfortunately it did not reappear and we had to move on... even more unfortunately none of the clients saw it so even if it was one it could not go on the official trip list... rules are rules.

The path was followed back around the loop and we picked up another couple of Wattle-eyes and a fine male African Paradise Flycatcher with tail streamers although it rarely stopped long. Yellow-breasted Apalis and Snowy-crowned Robin Chats sang but out of sight but a pair of African Pied Hornbills were more accommodating and perched up in the sunshine high above us having and mutual preening session.

African Pied Hornbills

A pair of Northern White faced Scops Owls were located at a day roost in a skinny sapling with a Fork Tailed Drongo for company. Their ear tufts were obscenely long and fluffy.

Northern White-faced Scops Owl

Fork Tailed Drongo

Another veer off the main path saw us en route to a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (the one with the puffy pink eyelids) but a foraging group of birds on the way distracted us and we got superb views of a Green-backed Camaroptera as well a Little Greenbul and at least two Grey Headed Bristlebills (another bulbul type) as they dropped down to root around the leaf litter.

The Owl was not going anywhere and glared through morning-after-the-night-before eyes but appeared equally smug that whatever angle we took, there was always a branch across half its face!

Verreaux’s Eagle Owl

Walking back saw our guides stop us dead in the path and point up to the tree just above. A long thin reptilian tail protruded beyond the leaves and by following it left you could see the rest of the Green Mamba. Although not known for willingly throwing themselves from trees onto passing tourists it was still prudent to wait for it to move off before proceeding.

Green Mamba

I got briefly distracted by a fine looking dragonfly and then we were off to our lunch time spot on an island accessible only by a small boat but even on the way here I managed a new bird with our first Abyssinian Roller by the roadside.

It was a five minute crossing to Sita Joyah (Baobab Island) where we were greeted by circling Hoodies and chirping Grey Headed Sparrows. Pied Kingfishers played chase and Long-tailed Cormorants sat in the trees.   

It was a fine lunch in a large open hut and as the conversation descended further into the realms of world sport I felt the urge to explore the immediate environs. 

The Hoodies were coming down to mump behind the kitchen and Village Weavers were feeding on spilt rice with the Sparrows and a couple of Bulbuls. Senegal Parrots screeched from the mightiest Baobab and both Long-tailed and Purple Glossy Starlings were milling around while a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird monotonously sang but eluded us.  

Hooded Vulture

Hooded Vulture

Hooded Vulture

Village Weavers & a Bulbul

Baobab fruit

Speckled Pigeon

Grey-headed Sparrow

Village Indigobirds and a single Yellow-fronted Canary were found and a Greater Honeyguide was the fourth lunchtime tick.

Greater Honeyguide

A Wood-Hoopoe was poking around a small acacia and a male Redstart was another Palearctic addition that was much appreciated by those from overseas and up above a large Lanner Falcon circled.  It was seriously hot!

Green Wood-Hoopoe

Fiddler Crabs and Mudskippers contested muddy territories on the island margins and the boast ride back gave us some good heron views and two massive Harrier Hawks that drifted over us.

Harrier Hawk

Fiddler Crabs

Fiddler Crab


Great White Egret

Our next stop was only a short distance away and would provide us with another drinking pool watch point under the shade of the trees. We passed a Tawny Flanked Prinia as we walked down and another annoying Tinkerbird ‘tinked’ away merryily.

Tawny Flamked Prinia

Black-rumped Waxbills were quickly added to the Prinia on the new list and Firefinches, Lavender Waxbills, Mannikins, Yellow-fronted Canaries, Red Bishops, Weavers, Bulbuls, Purple Glossy Starlings, Splendid and Beautiful Sunbirds and African Thrushes all attended the water troughs. 

Purple Glossy Starling

Northern Red Bishop

Yellow-fronted Canaries

A Spotted Honeyguide was the star find though and nicely completed all three possible species in a day.

Spotted Honeyguide on the right with Bulbul and a pair of Splendid Sunbirds
Spotted Honeyguide - Paul French

A few hundred yards up the road we were taken off into the woods again and despite the attentions of a herd of cows, the pair of Greyish Eagle Owls showed well in their chosen tree.  These are one of the smaller Eagle Owls and like the Verreaux’s had slightly pinky eyelids.

The woods were pretty quiet otherwise although we were shown another Standard Winged Nightjar nestled amongst the cryptically similar leaf litter.

Greyish Eagle Owl

Standard Winged Nightjar

There was a possible fourth owl for the day and just how the guides had discovered the roost of the African Wood Owl was beyond me.  Views were somewhat piece meal with some nice rufous belly barring, little bits of the head and an occasional foot but sometimes you have to take what you get! 

African Wood Owl

This particular patch of wood was very dense and it too had a drinking station which was attended by just one bird that just happened to be a very smart adult male Green-headed Sunbird while clattering from the trees revealed a party of Red Colobus Monkeys moving away from us.

It was time to return to the hotel where seven croaking Broad-billed Rollers circled the gardens in graceful Nightjar like loops. I did my best to get some shots but it was tricky in the fading light.

Broad-billed Roller

And so another epic day had concluded and I retired early after dinner to write my notes and prepare for the 6am start on the journey across the River to the northern shore for our adventure up river towards the camp at Tendaba.


  1. Yes remember the feeling of walking out at dawn, place alive with birdsong and not a clue what anything was. Eventually learnt common bulbul!! Enjoying the read, roll on Lesbos.

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