31st August -7th September 2007


31st August

Up at 0345 and an easy run to Gatwick - Julia half asleep all the way, but she got home OK! We were delayed for two hours on the tarmac because of a missing passenger and a loaded bag - groan. But finally we were away, and in no time were down on the deck in a lush, green and rather soggy looking Banjul. Jatta was still running the courtesy bus service, and before long we were off towards the Senegambia. Typical African birds started straight away - African Grey Hornbill, Hooded Vulture, Village Weaver, Spur-winged Plover, Pin-tailed Whydah, Yellow-billed Shrike, Piapiac and so on. A Lanner with prey was probably the top bird.

Once settled in, I explored the gardens - again, lovely to see lots of fantastic, familiar birds - African Thrush, Long-tailed Glossy Starling, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Beautiful Sunbird, Lavender Waxbill, White-crowned Robin-chat, Spotted Pigeon, and even single Gymongenes and Oriole Warblers for good measure.

Running the gauntlet of the bumsters (no change there), I changed some money, and blew out on a massive pizza up the strip. But I was tired - it's been a long day. So earlyish to bed, with AC on full!

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1st September

Inevitably, given the last sentence, the AC packed up half way through the night. Great! Never mind. I was up for breakfast at 0700, fed Finbara the cat outside my room, and then headed off to Bijilo Forest Reserve, just south down the coast. Shaking off the bumsters at the gate, I bought my ticket and had the place essentially to myself. Often quiet, but plenty of good stuff to get my teeth into and to photograph - both common hornbills, Little Bee-eater, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat, Green-backed Camaroptera, Fanti Saw-wing and so on. An (early?) Whimbrel was on the beach, and lots of Caspian Terns and Grey-headed Gulls were mooching about offshore. Seawatch one morning perhaps?

Towards the end of the morning, I made my way back (Green Wood-hoopoe and Yellow-billed Shrike en route), and then spent a good three hours photographing in the gardens, either side of a sandwich and cold drinks. The ultra-tame Hooded Vultures naturally offered good value, but also I got decent shots of White-crowned Robin-chat, Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Red-billed Firefinch and Common Bulbul, plus half a shot of an Oriole Warbler. The highlight, however, was a very obliging African Pygmy Kingfisher in a shaft of sunlight under a grove of trees - also Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird seen.

I hardly managed a siesta, as there were various doves and other common birds to photograph around the room - but at about 1630, the rain started, and I retreated for an hour or two.

With the rain still falling, I ventured out to eat a very excellent Chinese meal, do my emails, and get bitten. I must be more careful around dusk! repeat 10 times....

So, a pretty relaxing, easy-paced day - but packed full of good birds!

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2nd September

Up early this time, a quick breakfast, then out to meet Musa out front at 0710. We headed first for Tujaring, a "new" site just beyond Brufut - it was fair, with plenty of new birds such as Senegal Coucal, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Senegal Parrot, Siffling Cisticola, Rufous-crowned and Blue-bellied Rollers, African Cuckoo, Long-crested Eagle, Lizard Buzzard and so on, but nothing hugely exciting. The temperature rose rapidly, and by 0830 we were sweltering, so a passing cloud and a light shower were welcome relief.

Next stop was Brufut "woods" which were much lower and scrubbier than I remembered, and which had a few more decent bits and pieces, such as Pied-winged Swallow, Common Wattle-eye, Superb Sunbird, Brubru and even a brief Violet Turaco. But the undoubted top bird was a Standard-winged Nightjar flushed from the track, which had the good manners to return for photos! That outranks even Singing Cisticola - a lifer!

Finally, we dropped in at Tanji - it was quite quiet seeing as how hot it was getting, but we still managed to find Senegal Thick-knee, lots of terns including Royal and Little, and Grey Kestrel. A nice feature of all sites visited today was stacks of breeding plumage Northern Red Bishops.

Shortly before 1300, we got back and I crashed for an hour or two - too hot. But good afternoon light tempted me out to the gardens again, where I happily snapped away at Vervet Monkeys, Long-tailed Glossy Starlings, Black-necked Weaver, Woodland Kingfisher, Brown and Blackcap Babblers, Pied Crow and African Thrush. I had a lot of fun and completely filled a 1Gb card!

After sunset by the beach, I went and did the internet thing, bought some provisions, and had dinner in my room with the Borat movie - relaxed!

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3rd September

A slight oversleep today, but still breakfasted and away with Musa by 0720. First stop was Pirang shrimp farm - nice and wet with lots of wetland birds, like Malachite Kingfisher, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Greater Flamingo, Long-tailed Cormorant and so on - also a Palm-nut Vulture and Spur-winged Goose here.

Onwards via some more swampy areas to Bulock, where we eventually found Steve and Teresa's house, their ex-neighbour, and of course their health post! Most gratifying to see my name painted up on the wall inside! Perhaps inevitably, the batteries for electricity have failed, and the water supply is looking very dodgy, but there were inoculations going on and some optimism - but they're short of malaria tablets....

We bought some sardines for lunch (thin pickings out in the bush unless you like curried goat), and then headed into Bamakuno woods - sadly, the forest here is under great pressure for firewood, and was notably less thick and bird-rich than when I was here seven years ago - although it was early afternoon in the wet season today! Still, we saw some nice birds - White-shouldered Black Tit, Northern Crombec, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Tawny-flanked Prinia, an adult Long-crested Eagle, Northern Puffback, Violet-backed Starling and Scarlet-chested Sunbird. Best of all was a fly-over Bateleur. But the rain started up again, and we headed back to the coast.

We had an hour or so around Lamin rice fields - no great shakes, but good views of common birds, and a new one in the shape of African Jacana. But by 1630 or so, we were both pretty tired, and called it a day.

A late afternoon photographing around the hotel gardens, an excellent Indian meal, and then bed.

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4th September

A very lazy day today - with the most astonishing twist at the end! I got up very late and dawdled in to breakfast at some ridiculous touristic hour - nice! I spent the rest of the morning wandering about the gardens, watching a photographing this and that, notably the vulture gathering for their 1130 feed. Very dudish....

After a big lunch and afternoon doze (get the picture of today's "activities"?), I went down to Bijilo Forest once more - best bird actually IN the reserve was undoubtedly a single Ahanta Francolin (a threatened West African endemic and lifer!), plus Stone Partridge, Green-headed Sunbird, Green Wood-hoopoe, Oriole Warbler, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat and the usual other suspects. BUT the big shock came down at the beach, where I stopped for a rest and a drink.

Two Whimbrels flew up the beach, over the surf...hang on...that's a dark rump on one of them! Oh crikey (I thought something much ruder....) - HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL!!! Sure enough, the bird with the dark rump also showed a more frosty, contrasting head pattern - nailed! They pitched on the beach about 400m north of where I was, and what followed was a hybrid run/stalk - to no avail, alas - they flew off north into the distance when I was no closer than 200m. But that rump stayed dark - it was indeed a Hudsonian Whimbrel! Now that has to be a Gambian (not to mention African) mega - no idea of its status in West Africa at all at this stage.

Catching my breath (literally), I spent the last hour of light photographing the monkeys once again, and then, after the customary internet session, bought myself a beer and light tea, and returned to bed for what I hope will be an early night!

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5th September

Up early once more, and away with Musa to Abuko by 0730. A quick check of Lamin rice fields added Squacco Heron to the list, but soon it was into the forest proper. The walk round was quiet (typical bloody tropical forest!), and some key species were missing, notably White-backed Night-heron and Giant Kingfisher, but I saw plenty, and added some really good birds - Klaas's Cuckoo, African Pied Hornbill, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Little Greenbul, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Green Turaco and Green Hylia, for instance. Also saw the miserable looking Hyenas at the "orphanage".

Emerging in extreme heat at 1300, we took the slow route home through Serrekunda - much more organised and even glitzier than last time - decent roads, street lights and even some traffic lights!

I didn't feel 100% back at the hotel, so I retreated for the afternoon, watched a movie, relaxed, and even had a sleep - nice! A day of two halves....

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6th September

An early start - up at 0530 and in the bus by 0600, arriving at Lamin Lodge in darkness for coffee and ginger biscuits. About 15 other people arrived, all Dutch, and we climbed into three pirogues for a very pleasant dawn cruise up and down the creek - not a great many birds about, but some decent variety, with Caspian, Royal, Gull-billed and Black Terns, Splendid and Mouse-brown Sunbirds in the mangroves, Malachite, Pied and Woodland Kingfishers, Violet Turaco and various waders (Greenshank, Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper).

We had a truly excellent breakfast with garlic shrimps, massive omelettes and stunningly sweet mangoes, and then, while my new-found Dutch friends headed off to Abuko, I walked the Lamin fields with Aladdin (Solomon's partner) and trainee guide Charlie. We racked up lots of commoner species and few really good new ones - Red-necked Falcon, African Golden Oriole, Bar-breasted Firefinch and Wahlberg's Eagle. It soon got VERY hot, and by 1030, I was ready to head back. So was Musa - but getting stopped by the local police for a broken horn and having to bribe his way out of it didn't make him a very happy man!

(Yet) another lazy lunchtime by the pool (hard life, this sabbatical lark....), then an hour's doze in the heat of the day, then a highly productive hour photographing in the gardens, with several new species "bagged", and better pictures than before of some others. It was getting oppressively hot, and a clap of thunder was no surprise at all - and sure enough, within five minutes, perhaps the heaviest rain I have ever seen in my life was lashing down - luckily I had made it back to my room in time!

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7th September

Last day, and just time to squeeze in a trip to Kotu Creek. I was there by 0730, and had a very pleasant three hours wandering about and photographing mostly common birds. Additions to the list were Sanderling, Green Sandpiper, Little Grebe and Grey Plover - refreshingly European species!

More exotically, I also saw Hamerkop, African Jacana, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and all the usual open-country birds. Very relaxing pace, too!

Back at the ranch, I packed everything up, and checked out at 1130 - I had to wait a while for the airport bus to turn up, but it eventually came, and I checked in with no hitches back at Banjul Airport. And now I'm on the plane back home - 168 species logged, stacks of good photos, an unexpectedly high seven lifers, and a continental-scale mega! Not bad....

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Simon Woolley

September 2007