For the European nature lover, The Gambia provides a first class destination. It has the advantage of being only a short flight away (about 5½ hours) and it has a very large bird list with 600 species recorded. It is situated close to the northern limit of the tropical rain front and The Gambia is right in the middle of the narrow transitional zone between semi dessert and tropical rain forest, consequently, the country’s bird list includes species from both of these areas with the species to be seen varying with the onset of the rainy and dry seasons. Add to the African endemic species the many European migrants that either pass through The Gambia or spend the winter there, and one can see why the bird list is so large. Because of the proximity of the rain forest to the south and the desert to the north, there is always the chance of spotting something unusual that has overshot on migration, or on a food-finding tour.
A small country stretching along a river means that it is not home to some of the large mammals but it is not without interest for anyone interested in animals other than birds. Obviously there are three species of crocodiles and other reptiles including some snakes such as spitting Cobra and Green Mamba that most of us would prefer not to come across. Bottle-nosed Dolphin can be found in the river mouth and mammals such as warthog, hippos, hyena and even a few leopard as well as smaller cats, deer, rodents and bats. The River Gambia National Park has chimpanzee with more widespread red colobus, and guinea baboon. Aardvark and porcupine are present but scarce.
The climate is very pleasant, although it can be perhaps a little hot inland in the period just before and just after the annual summer rains. However, for many, the big attraction about birding in The Gambia is the attitude of the local population that is friendly, and, for the most part, very helpful.
Hotels in The Gambia range from adequate to very good. As in all things, you get what you pay for. The Atlantic Hotel is a little out on a limb being close to the capital Banjul. However, it has its own bird garden, is close to the Bund road. There are several hotels, Kombo Beach, Bungalow Beach and the Badala Park that offer good birding just a short walk from the hotel in the Kotu area. The Senegambia has large grounds with a corresponding large bird population with daily feeding sessions that bring in many black kites and vultures. The Kairaba, a little more expensive than the average is next door. Also nearby is the Kololi Beach Club, time-share, but rooms can be booked here. All these last three are close to and within easy walking distance of the small Bijilo reserve. There are an increasing number of smaller lodges dedicated to birders and other nature lovers.
Almost anywhere in The Gambia is good for birds, especially if you have never been before. Don’t dismiss your hotel grounds as being too peopled either, you will often get good views of birds such as the Barbary Shrike (Gonelek) in the grounds whereas outside they are very timid and often hard to see well. In truth, most of the hotels have some grounds around them and you will undoubtedly find birds to enjoy whichever hotel you are staying in. Seventy species in one hotel garden is not unusual!
Every little patch of rough ground seems to have its own specialities like the black-shouldered kite in the rough ground between the main road to the Senegambia Hotel and the sea. A damp patch on this same piece of ground produced one morning practically every Gambian heron and egret plus spoonbills.
A good guide can be a great help, especially if you are looking for a particular bird. The problem in The Gambia is that the local enterprise culture has found that a lot of tourists come to The Gambia to watch birds and that there is money to be made as a guide. If you appear outside your hotel with binoculars around your neck, potential guides will soon surround you. Some are good and really know their stuff, but others know little about bird recognition or where best to find birds. The very best ones, do not hang about outside hotels, you will need to contact them. All the hotels run special birdwatching excursions, and if you are on your first visit to The Gambia, then for your first couple of outings you won’t regret using these as a springboard to your own travels. However, for trips up-country and away from the coastal regions until you have a little experience of the country a guided tour can pay dividends.
There are plenty of good sites within easy reach of the hotels. You could walk to many of them from the hotel but, apart from those that are right next to the hotel, it would mean a hot and dusty walk along busy roads. However, with taxis relatively cheap it`s not worth the hassle. Remember to bargain with your taxi driver, you will usually be able to negotiate a reasonable rate for there and back with a couple of hours waiting. But do agree the price before you start.
While the list of coastal sites will be enough to keep many birdwatchers happy for a fortnight’s holiday, to see the bigger raptors it is best to travel inland. Whilst the distances are not great, the poor state of the roads means that what would be a short 2-3 hour journey within Europe, will take all day in the Gambia and the follow-on from this is that you will need overnight accommodation.
Remember The Gambia is a Moslem country. Ladies, when away from the beaches or hotels, should dress modestly. Save the skimpy shorts for the holiday environs.
There is no social security in The Gambia and one cannot help but feel sorry for those with grave disabilities. However, the best way to make a contribution to the local economy is to buy your souvenirs or a service from the Gambians and take with you articles that are useful for education. Hotel staff will be delighted to pass these on. Away from tourist hotels there isn’t a problem but you may be asked by the children for any pen or any sweet. Once you give a child one pen or sweet you will immediately be surrounded by masses more, so you will need to carry an inexhaustible supply of goodies!
Caucasian tourists will be addressed as Toubab apparently a local corruption of two bob. Two bob (two shillings in old British money) was the going rate for running an errand in the days when The Gambia was a colony. If you think how inflation has changed values, you will realise that it was in fact quite a generous rate.
Some of the most well-known spots are listed below for more see Fatbirder:
Abuko Nature Reserve (Map)
Abuko Nature Reserve is a managed reserve of remnant rain forest around a small pond that has good water levels all year. There are a number of public hides and for the more serious; a small hide overlooking its own small waterhole near the animal sanctuary in the centre of the reserve can be rented by the day for a small fee. (Book in advance at the main entrance. It will take two persons comfortably and three at a pinch.) The bird list of about 200 includes Eagle Owl, Night Heron, Giant Kingfisher and most of the other kingfishers, Violet and Green Turaco and Paradise Flycatcher. A delightful spot very rewarding first thing in the morning when the gates first open (8 am) and again in the late morning after the groups have departed.
Bund Road (Map)
Bund Road is a brackish wet area on one side of the road, sea mudflats on the other side, just outside Banjul. Shags, Pelicans, Herons, Egrets, Kingfishers, Waders, Terns, Gulls, occasional stork and ibis and doves on the roadside wires. Crested Lark, Marsh Harrier… etc. (NB The Bund road should not be birded alone as it is close to an undesirable area of Banjul)
Kotu Bridge, Kotu Ponds and the Golf Course are all situated in the area around Kombo Beach/Badala Beach Hotels. Kotu Bridge and Ponds good for thick-knees, hammerkop, waders, herons, egrets pied kingfisher. Kotu Ponds (Honey Farm) additionally often has ducks and little grebe. Golf course often has Black Headed Plover, Wood Hoopoe, small raptors, scops owl… etc.
Tanji Bird Reserve
Tanji Bird Reserve is a remarkable narrow strip of land between the sea and the main southbound coastal road. Despite its small size around 300 species of birds have been recorded here including a number of raptors. Gulls and waders can be seen on the sandbanks just offshore. Not very far out of Banjul, but you will need transport to get there. There is a small entrance fee to help to pay for the wardens that look after the area.
Major Source: Fatbirder
Map Source: Googlemaps™