Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Kotu Creek and surrounds. Day 1

My mate Alan and I have known each other a good few years now. We first met when on holiday in Goa and have kept in touch ever since. He's primarily a birder who takes photos, I an primarily a photographer who isn't too interested in ticking lists although I like to add new species to my portfolio of shots.
This would be an interesting trip. How would the two different approaches come together ? 
Fortunately we are quite like minded in that we are easy going and happy to accommodate each other even if sacrifices are made in the process.
In the past I have always favoured staying in Kotu because the surrounding birding and photographic opportunities are brilliant and it's also a great place for a non birding partner to be too. Staying in the more touristy areas is decried by some but personally I enjoy the chance to wander out looking for somewhere to eat or drink each evening. The change of scene is part of my holiday. During the day I can wander back and forth from hotel to my photo playground whenever I get bored of lying on a sunbed and haven't felt the need to wander too far from my Kotu base. My past experience of guided birding hasn't always been about getting the best photo opportunities.. far from it usually. It's more about seeing a wider number of species than I have found locally in Kotu but sometimes my views have been fleeting or, in some cases very limited. No, the best way to get the photographs you are after is to get to know the territory you are operating in, find which species frequent where and sit and wait for the right moment to come. Lots of time, luck and patience is required, something that's probably not always available on a guided tour.
Interestingly, my other half Claire loves The Gambia but has little interest in birding trips up river. Alan's other half Diane just doesn't fancy The Gambia full stop, preferring to stick to tried and tested Goa for her winter hols. She gave her blessing to Alan to go alone though as it's somewhere he has wanted to visit for quite some time, probably made more acute by reading my previous trip reports following several previous visits. I have also visited Goa several times so I knew what the comparisons where and I wanted Alan to see for himself.
Day one of our trip was written off as by the time our flight was diverted to Gran Canaria to refuel en route we didn't arrive at the hotel until 11.00pm. Ah well, our arrival would have been in the dark anyway. I hadn't counted on my first lifer for the trip being that sort of Canary though ! I was amazed to find that Kotu had shut down for the night and so too had the hotel. It was like a ghost town.
We went to bed without food or more importantly a nightcap and arranged to meet for breakfast at 7.00am.
I was surprised to find at 7.00am it was still dark, I could have sworn that last time the sun was up at around this time. Still, too late I was now up so  I went to breakfast as planned. The buffet spread was good but the quantity suggested that it wasn't intended to feed many. There were only a handful of guests up at that time so the usual pressure for outside tables on the terrace just wasn't there. We enjoyed our first sights of the trip. Alan , never having been to Africa before, couldn't help himself in his beaming smile as he started counting off lifers already. Even I managed a Kotu Beach first, this Yellow Legged Gull ( or is it Lesser Black -backed?)
Kelp Gull  Gambia
Either way, not a frequently seen bird to me in the past either. Things were off to a flyer but the weather wasn't looking particularly brilliant.
Visibility down the beach was very poor indeed.
Poor visibility  Kotu,Gambia.
Ah well, too much sun isn't always a benefit in many ways, particularly for birding and photography.
We headed out of the hotel to Kotu bridge around the corner, home for the Bird Guide Association with which I have had mixed experiences ! On my last visit I had a stand up row with one of them after I was accused of leading bird guided tours when I was seen heading out with two other guests in a taxi. I was outraged and put in a written complaint on this particular guides behaviour when requested to by the Association. In committee he was given a rather large fine and I ended up feeling sorry for him and paying half of it by donating a pair of binoculars. His apologies later accepted I left TG with bridges mended. 
Ironically, the first guide to spot me was the very same one who happened to have the same given name as the one I had been led to believe was going to be our Farakunku guide too. He told me he was the appointed guide for the latter as there had been a change. I was surprised by this assertion but presumed it to be the case. He said we'd go for a walk locally to discuss plans for the coming trips.
First off though we took in some views from the bridge. All the usual suspects were there, old friends to me but many were lifers for Alan.
Pied Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher  Gambia
Blue-breasted Kingfisher
Blue-breasted Kingfisher  Gambia
Malachite Kingfisher
Malachite Kingfisher  Gambia
We even had Giant Kingfisher, and all within moments !
Out on the mud flats and river banks we had the waders
Senegal Thick-knee
Senegal Thick-knee Gambia
Black Heron
Black Heron  Gambia
as well as Grey Plover, Common Sandpiper,Redshank , Greenshank and several others.
On the old bridge posts we also had visits from Hamerkop
Hamerkop Gambia
and Long Tailed Cormorant
Long Tailed Cormorant   Gambia
Alan was reluctant to move such was the rich vein of birding he had in front of him, however, a near sighting had us move away. Up in a near by Palm tree, a Lanner Falcon was spotted by our guide.
Red-necked Falcon  Gambia
It turned out to be a Red -necked falcon but that was fine by me as it was a new addition to my photo gallery. What I was really keen on though was seeing the new site for Painted Snipe so we headed off in that direction.
To my surprise this was a major change from my last visit, theBird Guide Association had constructed a purpose built hide specially for viewing the Snipe. I was very impressed!
Painted Snipe hide  Gambia
OK the birds were seen at some distance, but this was low tide and the water was out.
Painted Snipe hide  Gambia
The birds were skulking at the furthest point but had I the time I would have spent many hours here waiting for them to show much nearer. Even in the two days I was in Kotu I managed to fit in three visits, the Snipe were near the very top of my priority list. Eventually I had to make do with what I had , distant shots, poor light,big crops but at least I'd seen them this time , the first in a few years.
Greater Painted Snipe  Gambia
The female markings are stunning when you get the chance to view.
Greater Painted Snipe  Gambia
Walking back to the bridge following that first visit we had stunning views of Abyssinian Roller, another high priority target for me.
Abyssinian Roller   Gambia
Rufus-crowned Roller, unfortunately on the wires !
Rufus-crowned Roller  Gambia
and another old friend, the Whimbrel hunting crabs on the beach.
Whimbrel  Gambia
What an introduction it had been for Alan, and I was impressed too. Not only had the Association built a hide they have also constructed a new viewing tower by the bridge too. 
Kotu bridge Gambia
A lot of work has gone in to providing a better service to potential visitors and I feel desperately sorry that they are not being rewarded for their efforts with more work but with visitor numbers down business is very,very slow.
During the course of the morning my conversation with our guide made me more and more suspicious that he wasn't actually our appointed guide for the coming week so at first opportunity I discreetly asked the other guides if he actually worked for Farakunku to which they replied "No". It seemed there had been a big mix up, so somewhat embarrassed I had to tell him that he wouldn't be our guide after all. He seemed totally gutted and shocked that this had happened as he was looking forward to all this work coming his way. I told him we would of course pay him a day's guiding so all was not lost.
In the afternoon we walked the golf course, took in some more birds including Wattled Plover
Wattled Plover  Gambia
and for both of us, a lifer in Swallow-tailed Bee-eater
Swallow-tailed Bee-eater   Gambia
and over at the guides refreshment garden, Chiffchaff.
Melodious Warbler   Gambia
No day out in the Kotu vicinity is complete without a visit to the sewerage ponds which just happen to be near the refreshment place too.
Another surprise awaited me here too. None of the ponds had much in the way of surface plants, the one previously covered in water lilly and sewerage was now almost clear of anything !
Sewerage ponds  Kotu,Gambia
New ticks still kept on coming !
White-faced Whistling Duck
White-faced Whistling Duck  Gambia
Wood Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper  Gambia
among them.
We headed back to the bridge in the hope of catching up with one very special bird. One that we hadn't expected to see here at all. It was at the very top of my personal target list, a lifer too. In fact it was the biggest reason that I wanted to go "up river". The guides were all very excited about it, it had been a first in Kotu and had been seen on the previous 10 consecutive days but today wasn't to be one of them. Ah well, maybe tomorrow, maybe Tendaba. Time would tell.
We had some excellent views of other species instead, including Broad -billed Roller.
Broad-billed Roller  Gambia
I don't usually keep a count but today we had done.
A grand total of 85 species. Alan was now in a state of total euphoria, happy as the proverbial pig in !
To cap it all off a few beers and a superb Indian at the brilliant local Tandoori Restaurant. What more could you ask for ?
Those who knock Kotu need to think again !!

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