Birding trip report Gambia 18-25 November 2002
in   -   John  van der Woude, The Netherlands
See also:
- Photos of sites
- Species list
- 21 bird photos

The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, has several distinct advantages for a birding trip for people from Europe: it is the nearest tropical destination, it is within your own time zone (or nearly so), English is widely spoken here (it has been a British protectorate), the best time for birding is the European winter, and visits of just one week are often satisfying enough. It is a package holiday destination for sunseekers, hence there are comparatively cheap possibilities for flight plus accommodation. There is a nice array of resident bird species, the prevailing natural habitat being savanna, savanna woods, some gallery forest, and mangroves and other coastal habitats. Many birders (esp. British) visit this country, so it has its own field guide (1997), although the new one for West Africa should be fine as well. There is even a set of 3 CD's now with the bird sounds.
There are a lot of trip reports, and there is the birdfinding guide by Ward. Moreover, much of the more serious birding is done with the help of a local guide. So what to add here? I will specifically mention the subject of the local guides (plus how to do some birding on your own), and give some local logistical and site updates. The photos of several of the birding sites should give a taste of what these areas look like.
Nollie and I were here just one week and we limited ourselves to the areas at no more than one hour driving from the coast. So if you are heading for a two week trip including the far interior, the information here is limited. I don't think you should consider the long drive to the interior if you stay only one week in The Gambia, esp. because this trip to the interior is often merely done in order to see Egyptian Plover. So that's "one species" against a lot of species you will miss by loosing two days at minimum for the long drive.
We stayed in the Senegambia hotel, probably the largest in The Gambia, but also the one with the largest garden. This garden is a well-known birding site in itself, where we had superb views of Yellow-crowned Gonolek and White-crowned Robin-Chat. At just 10 minutes walk is Bijilo forest park (also called ‘Monkey Park’), which is not very rich in birds but worthwhile nevertheless; we had our only views of Oriole Warbler and Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat here. This hotel and park is in the Kololi area, while several other and maybe somewhat cheaper hotels are in the Kotu area a bit to the North. This Kotu area is amidst some famous birding sites (like Casino cycle track, Fajara golf course) although we think that these sites have had their best time. The large garden of our Senegambia hotel was also important for us since we mostly stayed at our hotel in the afternoon (after about 2 pm). In fact we chose Gambia for this trip because we wanted a bit of rest... and still get a lot of good birds!
Guides come in a great variety, both for birders as for tourists in general. As soon as you enter the street outside your hotel you will see hustlers who come up to you and ask you if you don't need a guide, or a taxi, or a restaurant, or whatever. You can just ignore these people, or politely say that you you want to be left alone (but don't go into a discussion, it may last very long). If there are police officers on the street you will see far less hustlers, although these will never harm you or even touch you. The next step up are the official tourist guides, wearing a sort of brown uniform and a badge. Just outside the Senegambia hotel they have an "office" (a shed). Here you sign and you get a guide assigned, for a few euros only. Their function is mainly to keep hustlers away, and to guide you of course. We took them out to some nearby birding areas (mainly the Kotu area, we had detailed maps from the Ward book), and they arranged the taxi as well. We had been advised by some people who often come here to ask for "Tony Blair" or one of his "brothers" as our tourist guide - they often have nicknames so why not this one. This worked well for these first days in the field. We also went out, to Abuko and Bijilo, without any guide because in these parks you can bird on your own very well. Still, in Abuko at the platform of the Crocodile pond, we met a guy who at first seemed to be the friendly local warden but then gradually appeared to be a bird guide touting for custom. As stated above, Bijilo can be reached on foot from the Senegambia hotel, and for Abuko there are fixed taxi rates of 10 euros including two hours waiting time. Make this twice as long and pay some 5 euros more (of course fix the rate beforehand and pay after returning).
So after these first days birding on our own or with just a tourist guide, we prepared for a choice of a bird guide. We had not taken bird guides from the beginning because we just like to discover and identify birds on our own. For the areas further away you better have a bird guide, because they know precisely where to go (also the smaller trails) and what to expect. However, some boys on the street who claim to be a bird guide will hardly know more than the first birds you have already seen on your own. So it is wise to check trip reports for names of bird guides. We phoned one from our hotel but he was occupied, but gave us the name of Sanna Mambureh and with him we went out the next day to the Brufut area. We were pleased by his company. He is relaxed and yet very attentive, knows where the birds are, and in fact operated more as a sort of co-birder for us than as an authoritative leader. We have heard of top bird guides who act more in the latter way. Sanna's knowledge of the birds was sufficient for us. We checked every new species in the field guide, which he only enjoyed. We paid him the equivalent of 35 british pounds for a long half day (e.g. 6.30 - 13.30) including driver and car. With Sanna we went out also the next two days, for Pirang and Bush Track, and for Marakissa. Postscript 2015: I recently heard that Sanna died a few years later, see also  How extremely sad, such a nice guy...
We were happy with our 190 species, including 95 lifers. If you would bird all day long, and always with a bird guide, you may push up the list to 230 or so species in a week or 270 in two weeks. In the coastal area (Western District) we mainly missed Yundum, the airport area with low scrub. Even a late afternoon visit would have added several species to our list. Also, we might have stayed whole days in stead of half days in areas like Bush Track and Marakissa. Along the Bush Track is a sort of forest reserve that we would eagerly have visited a second time (and in the morning hours).

Some notes on the birding sites (see other trip reports and the Ward book for more details):
Senegambia hotel garden: esp. around the small wood inside the (equally small) golf course, and at the small ponds between the room blocks nearer to the sea. And any high tree should be inspected.
Bijilo forest park: only 10 minutes walk from the Senegambia hotel. Take the first road
right (coming from the Senegambia), and walk past the restaurants to where this road makes a strong bend to the right. From here on look for birds (see photo), and the entrance is about 100 m further on to the left. Pay the small sum (we took a week ticket - makes it easier to enter before opening time 8 a.m. - just show your ticket to the night watch then) and walk as well the lower trails as the more elevated ones.
Abuko national park: we found the trail up to the cut-off trail (to the right) the best, plus that cut-off trail itself and the area around the end of that cut-off trail. Take your time for the Crocodile pond, or do it twice, because bird wise it is best to return to the entrance in stead of the exit of the park (so let your taxi wait at the entrance).
Kotu area: this is Fajara golf course, Kotu bridge, Kotu ponds and Casino Cycle Track plus its side track to the walled property near the sea (for the nightjar). Some birders have birded here for many days but I don't think it is that worthwhile, but I may be wrong. Definitely good for your first birds here, and to fill in late afternoon hours.
Yundum (not visited): the sandgrouse should still be there.
Brufut: a wonderful area of open wooded savanna (see photo) with loads of good birds. Nice to walk around as well, on the maze of trails.
Pirang: lots of wetland birds in the abandoned shrimp ponds. The cranes (2 to 4 only) enter or cross the area at midmorning, coming from the far left-hand corner. The small rice fields just before the village are also worthwhile, if alone for the birdy park-like landscape.
Bush Track (Faraba Banta; near Pirang): this is especially good at midday, for the raptors. But see above for the forest reserve along the Bush Track. So maybe you should go to that reserve first thing in the morning, then do Pirang, and then come back to the Bush Track.
Marakissa: a heavenly mixture of savanna and woods, but we found it a bit harder to bird than Brufut. Good birds as well though. You might even consider staying a night (or two) in the Marakissa River Camp. We had a drink at this small lodge and had a quick inspection of the rooms which looked nice and were not expensive at all.
A few basic tips
In the Senegambia hotel, opt for a normal room and not a de luxe one. The latter are in the main building and hence less quiet, while the normal rooms are in separate blocks inside the garden, and we even found them more comfortable (we changed upon arrival). 
Money can best be changed just outside the hotels in small but official money shops. The rate varied between the shops from 22 to 24 dalasi for one euro. Bring cash (euros, pounds, dollars) because the few cash machines for credit cards may be empty. No need to buy pounds at home for your euros.
Do take a safe (Elsafe system) in your hotel room, they are good value for money (3 euros a day) and big enough for your optics as well (we have a small Nikon scope).
We felt very safe in this country. I think that violent crime against tourists is unheard of. I don't know about safety in the far interior and in the cities.
We brought malarone pills against malaria (malarone is the apparent choice now for a short stay in falciparum areas), but we saw no mosquitoes.
Grocery shops in the street outside the hotel have a reasonable assortment, the most important item being bottled water of course. This comes all the way from Spain. Beer is readily available, also in restaurants, despite the fact that Gambia is a muslim country. 
In the Kololi area you will find several good restaurants so there is no need to eat inside your hotel all the time. Try the African, the Thai, and the Indian restaurant in the side street towards the Bijilo park. They even have their own buffet evening which is a very good deal. Special mention deserves the small restaurant Dardeema at the end of this cluster (see photo). This is good and cosy, has a more quiet location, and the profits are used for school development in nearby villages. 
Cellular phones are popular here, and have a good range, as we witnessed a few times in nature areas. It seems possible to rent a SIM for your own mobile phone. We also have been to an internet shop (in that same Kololi side street), very cheap. 
For wood carvings, we had a good choice and a good deal at the large and impressive wood carving market of Brikama. This is a town that you will pass on your way to Pirang and especially Marakissa because then you have to go through the center. Ask for a stop here on the way back. On several other places you will see tourist shops with baskets, drums, shirts, cotton bags, etc. In general, bargain down (they expect you to do so) to about one third or half of the asked price, depending on if you are coming with a local guide (in the latter case they will not ask the triple value, probably), and depending on your mood or course. Realize that the closer you are to the tourist hotels, the less compassion you should have because they will earn a lot more than the sellers further away.
Our itinerary was as follows:
Monday 18 November 2002 early afternoon: arrival by charter flight from Amsterdam and transfer to hotel Senegambia; some excited birding in the hotel garden.
Tue. 19: morning visit to Bijilo forest park; late afternoon again.
Wed. 20: morning Kotu area (Fajara golf course, Kotu bridge, Casino Cycle Track); late afternoon Kotu ponds and at dusk at nightjar site seawards of Casino Cycle Track.
Thu. 21: morning to Abuko national park. Species list now at 96.
Fri. 22: morning Brufut area, midday at Tanji beach. 
Sat. 23: morning Pirang area; midday Bush Track. 
Sun. 24: morning Marakissa area; late afternoon a short visit to Abuko NP
Mon 25: pre-breakfast walk in Bijilo forest park; departure at noon back to Amsterdam. 
All in all we enjoyed our week here a lot, for the birds, the weather (sunny all the time), the true African atmosphere in the villages, the food, and the people we met. And just forget those hustlers. "Look, I am not a hustler, I am just a bird guide!" said one over his shoulder while passing us, and only then we understood their good sense of humor.