When people read about wildlife in The Gambia, they're generally thinking of the big, headline species. Everyone wants to see monkeys, chimpanzees, crocodiles, baboons, hyenas and dolphins. These creatures are, without a doubt, incredible. They are wonderful to see in the wild and leave memories to treasure.
What most visitors don't realise is the range of spectacular birdlife and, perhaps more importantly, how easy it is to see it. In the UK, for example, birders will often get up a couple of hours before dawn, drive a considerable distance and stand in the cold and damp in the hope of seeing a glimpse of some oddity.
In The Gambia, you don't have to get up particularly early, nor get cold and damp, nor go too far. This is birding heaven.
You don't have to be a serious birdwatcher to go birding in The Gambia, but it's wise to consider the fact that you might come home as one. Most people are stunned at the sight of common kingfishers in the UK; in The Gambia, without too much effort, you could reasonably expect to see the pied, African pygmy, giant, malachite, shining blue and woodland kingfishers. Over 560 species have been recorded in The Gambia; little but desert lies to the north between the country and Europe, making it a haven for all sorts of migratory birds, too. You're almost certain to see a few very beautiful birds - whether you're looking for them or not!
What To Take
Even if you're not serious about birds, try to get hold of these before you go. None of them are essential, but all will enhance your experience considerably.
Binoculars. If you only make space for one luxury in your bag, make it a pair of binoculars. Although you're not going to be walking great distances, they are much lighter and more convenient than a birding telescope, and allow you to latch onto flying birds much more quickly. If you're buying a pair, remember that the first number gives you the magnification and the second the size of the lens at the end you point towards the bird - so a 10x35 pair will give you 10x magnification with a 35mm lens. 10x magnification is perfect, as it gets the bird close enough to observe without you having to waste time hunting for it in foliage, and in general the higher the second number the better. If you're buying, try to get good quality lenses, even if it means that you end up with a smaller pair.
Field guide. There is only one book that does the business, Field Guide to the Birds of The Gambia and Senegal, by Clive Barlow and others. Most of the bigger hotels have odd copies available to borrow, and bird guides will usually have a copy, but if you're serious, take your own copy. There may well be a waiting list for the hotel copy, meaning you might only have it for a day if you're lucky, and you will invariably see something noteworthy after your guide has gone home. There is a fairly brisk trade in second hand copies on the Internet.
Camera. If you want really good photos of birds, it's best to get yourself a decent SLR type camera with a good long lens (minimum 300mm). SLRs have the advantage of having lenses with wide apertures, meaning you can take top quality photographs in low light - and as birders get most sightings at dawn, this can prove important. If you haven't got a long lens, consider trying to capture shots of birds in their environment rather than trying to fill the frame with the bird - a shot of an osprey surveying the mangroves can have as much, if not more, impact than a close-up of the same bird.
It's important to consider whether you wish to use a guide or go it alone. There are an impressive number of expert bird guides who tout outside the resorts for business, and their services are very cheap. You could also choose to join a guided tour of a reserve, or wander and see what you can see.
Most visitors will need a guide of some sort. The locals know some surprisingly good places away from the reserves, will be able to imitate and 'call in' birds, and most importantly know what they are looking for! If you go to one of their favourite haunts, they may even know exactly which tree to look in for particular birds, as they will know where they are nesting. If you do take on a guide you have met outside the hotel, first of all check he/she has an ID card issued by one of the country's two birding associations. Then, if possible, meet for a drink before offering any work. This will give you a chance to ask where they would recommend and how good their English is - if they can explain what birds you're likely to see in which locations and are good communicators, they are likely to be fantastic guides. Better still, if you have time, arrange a short local walk before you commit to going further afield. You can also find local bird guides on the Internet. Expect to pay between £5-10 per head per walk for their services, plus any transport/admission costs.
At some reserves, notably Abuko and Bijilo, you can pick up official guides inside the park. Although they are not allowed to charge, they do expect a tip for their services - around 50-100 dalasis per head is acceptable.
'Off the peg' organised tours are less predictable. Discount any trip that leaves after breakfast; by the time you get there at 11ish, the birds and birders will be long gone1. Even if you do get there early, check on the size of the group that will be going, and if there are more than half a dozen of you the noise and chatter will scare the more nervous birds away in any case! The advantage of these tours is that, in general, you know what you're getting at a fixed price, and they are especially useful if you wish to scout out a reserve for a later visit.
Where To Go
Just about anywhere. Not a good enough answer for you? Read on.
Many hotels have a semi-wild area that is good for bird-spotting. These tend to be areas with fairly dense foliage that allow birds to flit about in good cover; large lawns and open areas tend to attract pied crows and vultures2, which understandably scare off the smaller birds. You're certain to see firefinches and other small birds without even trying. Larger hotels may have more extensive areas that are prime for birdwatching; in the Senegambia area of Kololi, for example, the Kairaba Hotel is renowned for being a minor bird haven.
Around Your Hotel
Although they are not official reserves, there are some wonderful opportunities for birdwatching in every major hotel area. Local guides are essential for these; in some places, it is quite easy to get lost, and some prime spots are easily passed by. From north-east to south-west, look for the following places:
- Cape Creek and Cape Point (Bakau)
- Fishing beach (Bakau)
- Woodland around the track at the end of Kairaba Avenue, leading to Leybato's (Fajara)
- Fajara Golf Course (Fajara)
- Kotu Stream (Kotu)
- Path between Badala Park and Palma Rima Hotels (Kotu/Palma Rima)
If you like a little more wilderness and adventure, there are plenty of good sites within a tourist taxi ride of the resorts.
Bijilo Forest Park. Known locally as the 'Monkey Park', you'd expect this to be primate city. It's also a rare example of coastal forest, and is a very good introduction to birdwatching in The Gambia. There are few truly great spotting opportunities, however, no pools and no hides. It is a great place to meet knowledgeable guides, and you can try out their services for no greater risk than the cost of a tip at the end.
Abuko Nature Reserve. This is the most visited reserve in the country, and is less than an ¾ hour from the resorts. It features a crocodile-infested pool with a basic visitor centre and hide on one side, with other trails leading to more hides and a rather depressing animal orphanage. It's a great place to catch sight of some less common birds; hammerkops, giant kingfishers and violet turacos can be found here easily, and you're likely to see some real treats.
Tanbi Wetlands. Not an official reserve, but noteworthy nonetheless. Exploring the wetlands between Banjul and Bakau will give good sighting of many waders, terns and kingfishers, as you would expect - but also plenty of plovers, rollers and sandpipers.
Tanji River (Karinti) Bird Reserve and Brufut Woods. These two are just a few miles apart, and easily combined in one trip. Brufut Woods is a community forest (don't be surprised if a local comes up and asks you for money here - he will be genuine) which was set up by British enthusiasts and is run by the community. It's a wonderful place for owls, and hornbills abound. It's only a small reserve, so take time to look at Karinti too; the vegetation makes it hard to see anything special, but the atmosphere is electric. You can also access the beach, which is probably the most pristine south of the river.
Lamin Lodge. Just a few miles on from Abuko, Lamin Lodge is a base for mangrove creek trips. It's really a rugged, rickety eco-restaurant that offers trips by motorised boat or dugout canoe, but the vibe here is unmistakable. Try to avoid visiting at lunchtime, when the birds are at their least active - the lodge offers 'Birds and Breakfast' and sunset trips which are far more productive in terms of sightings, and it's also the embarkation point for long-distance river trips.
If You're Really Serious...
If you want to see carmine bee-eaters, Abyssinean hornbills or Egyptian plovers, you'll need to go east, my friend. Much further east. Upriver, you'll find the really rare birds, but you'll need to pay serious money for an overnight river trip or punish yourself for a day or so on rough dirt roads to get to Tendaba, Janjanbureh and beyond. This is uncharted territory for most tourists, and you'll need either a very adventurous spirit, a great guide or a good tour operator to get there. And if you do... don't forget to tell us about it.