to Gambia with Sunbird

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: to Gambia with Sunbird
From: "Vader Willem Jan Marinus" <>
Date: Mon, 16 Feb 2009 22:13:14 +0100

                                  A WEEK IN GAMBIA WITH SUNBIRD 1

Last week I had the great good fortune to be able to escape for a week
from the bird-poor and dark winters at 70*N to the sun and rich birdlife
of Gambia, the small and odd-shaped country in W.Africa, that consists of
not much more than the river Gambia and its banks and which is completely
surrounded by Senegal. The country is not more than 50 km broad at its
widest, near the coast, and much less further inland, and the broad and
wide river Gambia, navigable up to far inland is the life nerve of the
country in all respects. This river is also tidal for 100's of kms inland,
so that everywhere it is ringed by mangrove. Otherwise the soils are sandy
and the land mostly flat, with some sort of savannah as its natural
vegetation. The large and impressive baobab trees---now mostly bare, but
bearing lots of fruits-- and two sorts of palms are the most conspicuous
trees, but there are many others, a lot of them bare now in the dry
season, but surprisingly many in flower; sadly I did not have any plant
literature with me, so can not tell you what the various beautifully
flowering trees are. there are thorny Acacias here too, but far fewer than
last autumn in Namibia. There are a few 100 000 people here, living---and
not very well, I am afraid---of agriculture (peanuts are the main export
article), while near the coast tourism is very very important.

We were a group of twelve participants, most of them British, under the
leadership of James Lidster and two local guides, and as usual , most of
the participants were well traveled and excellent birders. We had the
great advantage of disposing of the same hotel room all week---even though
we were in the inland for two nights---and we traveled in a small bus.
James has led these tours many times---he meets acquaintances wherever he
goes---, and he knows where the birds are, how to find them, and very
important, how to point them out to us. We had a most successful trip, and
saw lots and lots of birds, even though the most famous target on these
Gambia trips, the famous crocodile bird, the Egyptian Plover, eluded us;
we chased them all the way to Bassé, far inland, but to no avail. I have
an annotated list of the  c 250 birds that I saw, for those who would be
interested to see a 

The weather in Gambia this time a year is invariably warm and
sunny---there may be a cool breeze early in the mornings---, and there
were few problems with insects, even though this is infamous malaria
country. The main roads are quite good, while many of the secondary roads
are bumpy, but the country being so small, distances are not really great,
and a lot of the destinations were within an hour from our hotel. The food
was OK, and only a few participants had any stomach troubles some days.
The infrastructure is otherwise not fantastic, and there seems to be a
general unwillingness to repair things that go broke, in my hotel room the
door would not close, the shower would not shower, and the toilet seat
slid all over the place. But these are all minor mishaps, and not a real
problem for a short period.

 Birds there are many in Gambia  and  they are generally not very shy;
clearly bird hunting is not a passion here. The most conspicuous birds
along the roads are doves and vultures, while bulbuls occupy many hotel
and restaurant gardens. The roadside wires have doves everywhere, and they
are of many species; in the driest areas the slender and pretty Namaqua
doves (not so often on the wires) and the Laughing Doves dominate, in
populated areas these latter are kept company by the Vinaceous Dove, a new
acquaintance for me, and when it gets more wooded the large Red-eyed Doves
are everywhere. Finally, near the river or wetlands, the rolling tones of
the African Mourning Doves are heard often. All these birds call almost
incessantly; the Laughing Doves 'laugh', the Vinaceous Doves call
frenetically 'Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight', while the Red-eyed Doves
never tire of declaring 'I AM   a-red-eyed-dove'. In the woodlands there
are still other persistent dove-voices, the long series of coo's of the
wood doves; in dry woodland this is the Black-billed Wood Dove, in denser
forest the Blue-spotted Wood Dove; the two sound largely the same.

The wires also have larger birds, the colourful rollers. In the coastal
areas these are mainly the aptly named Blue-bellied Roller and the
Rufous-crowned roller, while in the inland the spectacyular long-tailed
Abyssinina Roller becomes absolutely dominant and quite numerous. The
black long-tailed scavenging corvids, the piapiacs, which look a bit like
a cross between a crow and a magpie, mostly keep to the ground and always
are in small groups, I also saw them on the backs of the cows in the

In the morning there are vultures in most large treetops, while later
these circle and soar overhead. The majority of these are the smallish
(for a vulture!) Hooded Vultures, that seem to act as general scavengers
in the villages, and that also closely follow agricultural workers in the
fields,  like gulls behind the plough. Other indefatigable scroungers are
the many Kites, here mostly Yellow-billed Kites, always on the lookout for
edibles, and wonderful flyers.

The main habitats visited are the coast, the coastal bushlands and
savannahs, the denser forest remnants, and the various mangrove habitats
and wetlands. I'll write about those in the next issues of this series.

                                                 Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                 9037 Tromsø, Norway

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