This month I am starting a little bit off-topic as I have just returned from a trip to Gambia. Our visit was planned to have a lazy start with plenty of relaxing, beach and catching up with reading lists. This was to be followed by a 6-day birding trip around some coastal sites before venturing up river to inland Gambia.
The journey wasn’t very straightforward as we went from Alicante to Barcelona and then took a direct flight to Banjul, the capital of the country. Our return was even more convoluted as we booked a flight from Gambia to Gran Canaria to spend 3 days winding down before catching a final flight to Alicante. As it turned out, we couldn’t land at Gran Canaria due to a Saharan sand storm and we were diverted to the neighbouring island of Tenerife instead. Eventually, two and a half days later, we boarded our flight to Gran Canaria which left us a one night stop before our return to Alicante. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent this long waiting in an overcrowded airport, but it isn’t something I would recommend!
We had never been to Gambia nor Africa, (except northern Morocco), so didn’t know what to expect. The country is the smallest in Africa and is only 15 to 30 miles wide and 295 miles long. It basically covers both banks of the River Gambia and is entirely surrounded by Senegal, except for a short Atlantic coastline.
We chose our hotel on the coast because Chris Packham had previously used it on birding trips, so I thought it would be a pretty good standard hotel and the photos on the websites looked great. However, it proved to be a complete disappointment. Our room was uncomfortable with no bedroom fan or air-conditioning (essential in that heat) and some of the petty rules didn’t help to cheer us up. It was a great pity as the location was amazing; close to a beautiful uncrowded beach with the Atlantic Ocean stretching into the distance. If we thought this was disappointing, the accommodation for our trip to the interior was a shock! We expected basic and that is what we got and more! The antique Kapok-filled mattresses and pillows must have been left over from the Colonial days and I don’t think any of our rooms had been decorated during the last 100 years! We experienced some very uncomfortable nights as the bumps in the mattresses didn’t quite coincide with the hollows in our bodies, but everywhere was clean and bugless. We also made sure we slept under the mosquito nets, even if there were a few holes in them.
It sounds like a lot of whingeing, but there were lots of positives about our trip. The people were amazingly friendly and welcoming (it is called the smiling coast), spoke English and we loved the local food. Allegedly there is no crime in the country and we felt completely safe everywhere we went, even in the most remote and poor city areas and villages. We have travelled quite a lot over the years and I must say it is the most welcoming country we have been to. The long uncrowded golden beaches were amazing and understandably are a big draw for the majority of tourists.
On the downside, the weather is very hot and away from the coast we were experiencing temperatures of up to 42 humid degrees. It drains the energy from you on a long day birding.
However, the birdlife in Gambia can be quite spectacular and many birders have the country on their wish list. The majority of species are specific to the African Continent, but there are a small number of familiar European birds that spend the winter in these much warmer climes. One of these is the Caspian Tern which was incredibly common around the coast and the tidal reaches of the river. Terns tend to be smallish and rather delicate versions of Gulls, but this one is a brute with a wingspan of up to 1.45m. It is a very occasional visitor to areas around the Mar Menor and mainly seen on migration. Its large size is the best clue to identify it from other Terns and it is sometimes known as the ‘Flying Carrot’ due to its large, reddish-orange bill.
The birds that really caught our attention were the colourful ones and the country is blessed with several species of Rollers and Bee-eaters, all of which have very striking appearances. We especially liked the Abyssinian Rollers that we saw quite frequently as we travelled around.
They are very similar in colouration to the European Roller which is a summer visitor here. However, they are a bit smaller (about the size of a Collared Dove) and have extremely long tails and streamers similar to a Swallow.
There are a total of 8 different species of Bee-eaters that are all extremely colourful and we were fortunate to see 6 of the 8.
I am not sure which were my favourite ones, but I particularly enjoyed watching the Blue-cheeked, Red-throated and the Little Bee-eaters.
The Kingfishers were also pretty striking with 8 different species, most of them colourful and showing a huge range in size from the tiny Pygmy Kingfisher about the size of a Blue Tit, up to the Giant Kingfisher which is just a bit bigger than a Wood Pigeon.
However, one of the most colourful and a particular favourite of mine was the Blue-breasted Kingfisher which we saw in and around the mangrove swamps.
However, the birds that really impressed me were the very plain-coloured Nightjars, of which there are 6 different species in the country. We saw two of them; the Standard-winged and the Long-tailed Nightjar.
They are all nocturnal birds that hunt moths and flying insects and spend their day time resting among the leaf litter on the floor. Our guide took us to within 2 metres of the birds, but we still struggled to see them as they stayed perfectly still and relied on their superbly camouflaged plumage to keep them safe. Can you spot them in the photos?
We were also pretty surprised with some of the local Starlings, which looked nothing like their relatively drab European cousins. The Purple Glossy Starlings certainly lived up to their names as their plumage is not only glossy, but has an amazing range of colours as the light catches them at different angles and their bright yellow eyes continually shine even in the shade of the woodland.
I will now finish by going back on-topic and talk about birds in Murcia. News stories about environmental matters in Murcia are invariably negative, but it was recently announced that our resident Griffon Vulture population is doing rather well, which is a really nice change. They became became extinct as a Murcian breeding bird in 1979, but returned to breed again 16 years later in 1995 and last year there were a total of 215 breeding pairs; great news for this species. Tthe most surprising part of the recent announcement about Vultures is that the less common Black Vulture has returned to breed successfully in 2019 after an absence of over a 100 years. The Black Vulture is the biggest of Europe’s ‘birds of prey’ with a wingspan of between 2.5m and 2.85m. It is huge. As its name suggests, it is predominately black in colour and fairly ugly as vultures go. Only its mother could love it! It is great news that it has returned and hopefully it will start to thrive as its slightly smaller cousin has done in recent years.
I will now leave you with another photo of a Vulture from Gambia that is far prettier. It is the Palm Nut Vulture. Unusually for a Vulture, it feeds mainly on the fleshy fruit-husks of Oil Palms and the fruits of the Raffia Palm. It is the first time I have heard of a vegetarian Vulture, but it does occasionally let itself down by snacking on crabs, frogs, fish and bits of carrion. It obviously gets tempted to revert to type every now and then. You just can’t totally trust a Vulture!
If you like the photos, you can see more on my new Instagram account ‘birdinginmurcia’.
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