I was lucky enough to visit The Gambia with The Gambia Experience at the end of November 2003. Though I didn't really attempt any bird photography, I got some other pics which you can see here.
After coffee at Lamin Lodge, we set out on our 'Birds and Breakfast' excursion. This is a view from a dugout canoe on a tributary of the River Gambia at dawn. We moved silently downriver.
As we glided past the mangrove roots, we could see oysters (an important crop which is harvested by women), lots of tiny crabs and the occasional fish. Plenty of birds in the branches, as well as waders poking around in the mud.
I really wanted to see more bee-eater species after enjoying European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) in Spain and Lesbos. The boat was a great way to get close to several species, including Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus)(above, camera handheld). After about 90 minutes on the boat, our backsides were all numb and we returned to the Lodge for breakfast...
A view of Lamin Lodge from the water. It stands on stilts over the water (or mud, depending on the tide). The mangroves are an important habitat for all kinds of wildlife. You can enjoy the view over the top of the mangroves while having breakfast. Birds visible included more Little Bee-eaters, a Bearded Barbet (Lybius dubius) and Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus).
We weren't the only ones ready for some food, though... As we sat down to brekkers, we were joined by a group of Green Vervet monkeys, who were very naughty and stole a sugar bowl as well as food from everyone's plates. I suffered the loss of two pancakes and some honey.
It was time for another cack-handed attempt at bird photography...
Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) was the most common member of its family that we saw on our trip (we also saw one Malachite Kingfisher, Alcedo cristata). We frequently saw Pieds either perched on mangroves or hovering over the water. This one stayed still for long enough for me to attempt a photo.
One of the great things about The Gambia is that you can see a huge variety of birds wherever you go, even on thhe way to and from the airport. However, there are also some special reserves to visit. Abuko Game Reserve is pretty much the epitome of African jungle that you imagine. Up to 20 crocodiles are supposed to inhabit its pools,
though we didn't see any.
The best bird was definitely Violet Turaco (Musophaga violacea), which performed beautifully just outside the hide - a beast and a half!
Like in other parts of the world, the forest in The Gambia is threatened, though it was good to see that steps are being taken to protect it. Makasutu ('holy forest') was a fabulous place to visit. You can also stay in its luxury lodges by the Mandina Bolong [river]. After a guided stroll through the forest, we arrived at the lodges (complete with The Gambia's biggest swimming pool!) and admired the view - what a place for a holiday!
Quite a contrast from the bustling Kotu Beach area where most visitors to The Gambia stay. No cars, no bumsters, no hassle, no beach - just the river and the birds and insects around it. Each lodge has its own dugout. The rivers and creeks in The Gambia are central to life there.
We went to meet the local Marabou (witch-doctor), but he was out. So we met his extended family instead at their hut. In The Gambia, you need to be careful not to offend when taking people's photos (they believe it steals their soul). But if you ask nicely, there's usually no problem.
We also encountered some other forest inhabitants... Muscovy Ducks get everywhere! It was time for lunch...
Dancing, singing and drumming from the Jola tribe was on the agenda after lunch, though fortunately for us Brits, audience participation was not compulsory.
We visited a school at Yakanu to bestow our precious gifts of pens, pencils, books and paper on the pupils. As you can see from the banner above the window, Desperate Dan has indeed made it as far as The Gambia! You can see hand-painted walls everywhere.
Unfortunately, the Tonyfelin Welsh Baptist Church Computer Lab was not yet up and running, but at least they had some computers (even if they didn't work...). We met some pupils and they seemed very excited, especially when we could show them their photos on the digital camera's monitor.
Unlike many schools in the UK, the pupils were well turned-out, polite and enthusiastic! These children have just started school. They're the lucky ones whose parents can afford to pay.
Everywhere we went, Gambians of all ages were pleased to meet us. Life is hard for many people, however. Though many Gambians have mobile phones and Internet cafes are abundant, lots of people still rely on the land to make a living.
We took a trip out through the bush in a huge four-wheel-drive truck to see the bush. Much more enjoyable than an air-conditioned bus - you can feel the breeze through your hair, get covered in dust, and get much better views of the countryside, people and birds.
We visited a compound - a Gambian house with yard and outhouses - as part of our trip on the truck. Everyone was very friendly and eager to relieve us of any surplus pens or paper we had! The girls in the picture below attend an Islamic school.
Though it all seemed very basic and rustic, with chickens running around, our illusions were shattered when one of the villagers' mobile phones burst into life...
Our guide for most of the week, Mr President, runs a restaurant and was after a chicken in order to become self-sufficient in poultry. He was given one, free of charge, at the compound.
The Gambia is a country full of new sights, sounds and tastes. Another visit was made to a palm plantation, where palm sap is harvested. The sap drips off into specially-positioned plastic bottles, where it ferments in the sun. Result = palm wine. You can't bring it home because it ferments and ferments and ferments and an explosion could result.
Palm wine is distilled to produce 'fire-water' - a lethal spirit which you can take home... In the picture, Trevor the journalist is about to lose his passport as he tries to climb a palm tree in search of alcohol.
Our trip through the bush took in visits to a school and a compound and ended up on this beach, where we had another superb lunch of freshly-cooked chicken, fish, prawns, rice and vegetables. New birds for the list here were Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Sanderling (Calidris alba) and Pink-backed Pelican (Pelecanus rufescens).
A good way to finish the trip. If you counted all the Woodland Kingfishers on bottles of JulBrew, it would surely be The Gambia's most common bird. Most Gambians are Muslim and therefore teetotal.
Small but perfectly-formed. This wasn't strictly a birding trip so I missed lots. The hyperlinks lead to pics of the species at Nigel Blake's website.
Western Reef Heron
Great White Egret
Lesser Black-backed Gull
African Mourning Dove
Western Grey Plantain-eater
African Pied Hornbill
Long-tailed Glossy Starling
Northern Red Bishop
The Gambia Experience
Nigel Blake's superb Gambian bird photos
AOL's page about The Gambia
Bird Studies Canada's list of Gambian bird links
A Field Guide to the Birds of The Gambia and Senegal
BOU Checklist - The Birds of The Gambia