Saturday, 31 January 2015

A day around Tendaba... Kiang West NP Day 4

It seemed as if we had been in The Gambia for an age already when we woke up to Day 4. Following the 95 species seen at Kotu we had already moved on up to 146 with an incredible 51 species added on the journey up to Tendaba and during the previous evening's boat trip. As  a return visitor I was still adding lifers to my bird list at a fairly steady rate, Alan was firmly remained in birding heaven !
Today was to be spent in and around the Kiang West National Park. What exactly defines a National Park in the Gambia I'm not sure, the surrounding countryside was very much like everywhere else.
After a decent albeit slightly weird breakfast ( delicious fried eggs and freshly made bread with a mixture of cold baked beans and pasta, some salad and some spam like creation I didn't care to try) taken in the communal dining area and then off we went in the car.

Tendaba Camp  Gambia
First stop was to view some Bruce's Green Pigeons sitting high up in the trees.
Bruce's Green Pigeon   Gambia
There are a fair number of pigeons and doves to be seen in TG, as many as 15 species, but they do tend to get overlooked despite the fact that some are very attractive, particularly this one.
As we were getting in to the car a couple of Double-spurred Francolin started to cross the road up ahead. This is a common bird but they are very elusive when it comes to photographing them as they stay in deep cover most of the time, they are also exceptionally well camouflaged too.
A big crop of a shot but my best yet !
2015-01-14 at 09-50-12
Continuing on we arrived in a field where hopefully we would catch up with the Ground Hornbill but first we spotted some Yellow-billed Oxpeckers that were  sitting on a herd of cows whilst the latter were being miked. We were able to get pretty close and capture some decent images.

2015-01-14 at 10-10-23
Superb little birds
2015-01-14 at 10-09-05
They are almost comical the way they pop up to take a look at what's going on.
2015-01-14 at 10-07-05
The day had got off to a brilliant start but our stopping near human habitation drew the inevitable attention of the local kids.
2015-01-14 at 09-14-00
Wherever you go in TG the local children will shout "Toubab" at you. There are various interpretations of what it means but basically, it's aimed at white foreigners. It can get a little wearing but they are only kids, once they get to a certain age they seem to stop. Adults make no attempt to stop them in the meantime though and although it wouldn't be tolerated in today's political climate here in the UK, you just have to put up with it.
I don't think that the locals dislike us, quite the contrary, we were given big smiling welcomes everywhere we went, however, looking at the photo might raise a few doubts !
2015-01-14 at 09-14-36
Moving away, we parked up and went on with the search for the Hornbills. No luck that first morning but we did get some great views of a pair of Striped Kingfishers.
Striped Kingfisher  Gambia
Not all Kingfishers need to be near water, these are happy to live on a different diet than fish.
Also in the vicinity we had lots of other smaller birds, none particularly close.
Woodchat Shrike was a pretty common species in many places.
Woodchat Shrike  Gambia
Others more of a rarity, well at least we didn't notice them in the way a Shrike stands out, but provided first ever record shots for me.
Senegal Eremomela
Senegal Eremomela  Gambia
Mottled Spinetail
Mottled Spinetail  Gambia
Bronze-tailed Starling
Bronze-winged Starling  Gambia
and Bearded Barbet
Bearded Barbet  Gambia
All examples of my idea of a record shot, none being too satisfactory but it was an enjoyable experience seeing something different. What was less enjoyable was fighting our way through undergrowth of thorny bushes, one plant being a particular nuisance as it leaves barbed burrs attached to clothes and socks. Particularly sharp and nasty, even removing them can be painful.
We returned to Tendaba camp for lunch and the guide and driver to have a siesta. The morning hadn't been too bad, added to the Kingfisher and Oxpeckers I was also pleased to capture some Grey Kestrel images I was happy with too.
Grey Kestrel   Gambia
Lunch at Tendaba was superb ! Once again those Trip Advisor reports brought in to doubt.
We ordered Fish and Chips ! How very British ! Well, not quite. A large steak of unknown, possibly fresh water fish, in a thin crispy batter served piping hot and with equally delicious chips could not be faulted. Priced at 500 delasis it wasn't cheap by Gambia standards but they were the best I have tasted in years. Strange though, I was persuaded to have the same for my evening meal as there wasn't much chicken on the buffet menu. The same dish was terrible as it had probably been cooked at lunchtime and kept warm. Soggy fish in a leathery batter served with sad chips. Just shows how different the same experience can be !
Anyway, despite the sun being high i wasn't ready for a siesta. I wandered down to the pier to take some shots of Gull-billed Terns hunting the mudflats.
Gull-billed Tern  Gambia
And one of the villages Yellow-billed Kites was scavenging the rubbish.
Yellow-billed Kite  Gambia
I can't help myself, I still call them Yellow-billed Black Kites !
Yellow-billed Kite  Gambia
The siesta period over we first went looking in a local field for Coursers. It didn't take Lamin long to find some.
Bronze-winged Courser  Gambia
They favour recently burnt fields but they are well camouflaged in the bits that are unburnt. It's a dirty business wandering around in the ashes but I got the shot I was looking for eventually after having played a game of cat and mouse with this bird.
Bronze-winged Courser  Gambia
Time then to take another look for the Ground Hornbills, and this time we enlisted extra help in a local guide too. Everyone else seemed to tick the Hornbills with ease, but not us. Once again we failed but our guide did find us Black-bellied Bustard, Four-banded Sandgrouse and Long-tailed Nightjar. It wasn't for lack of trying either. It was dark well before we got back to camp. Alan and I lost enthusiasm before our guides did which says a lot in their praise. Their determination to please their clients is most admirable.
That evening meal of disappointing fish and chips was at least accompanied by some ice cold beers and we still had much to celebrate with another 29 species added to out list which, now standing at 175 in four days was looking pretty impressive. Of course this couldn't continue at this rate and personally I was more interested in getting decent views for photography than counting numbers but I enjoying the challenge of seeing how far we could push it. I presumed I had already broken my species list record for the Gambia and probably any other trip I have ever made and we had only had 4 days so far.
Tomorrow we had our second boat trip, hopefully it would tick some of my boxes as well as the list !

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Tendaba here we come! The Gambia Day 3

Our pre arranged vehicle and driver arrived at the Sunset Beach bang on time. 8.00am as arranged with Heather through the Farakunku Lodge booking.
With a creditable 95 species seen in the first two days we wondered how we could top that but were optimistic of some different species when heading inland and further up river.
We picked up our  guide, Lamin the genuine, that's Lamin K Njie, on our way and he was soon asking us what special targets we had. Alan had Abyssinian Ground Hornbill top of his list, I was less specific but would be happy with some Coursers and Pratincols. We both hoped to see Carmine Bee-eater and Egyptian Plover but were told that wasn't likely to happen. We had two boat trips booked and I'd hoped that we could do one on this first day in the evening, the other on the last morning before we left thus leaving the middle day free to go a bit further afield searching for some of our targets.
We hadn't travelled far when Lamin announced we were going to stop at Bonto Woods as he'd phoned his contact and the Owls were showing well. Fair enough I thought and stop we did.
Not 25 yards from the "car park" and guide hut and there it was, our first Owl of the trip.
Northern White-faced Owl
Northern White-faced Owl   Gambia
Now Owls are usually very difficult so I couldn't believe I had only taken 4 shots in a few seconds and, happy with the result, was ready to move on and leave the Owl in peace. Amazing !
We walked on to see the Verraux's Eagle-Owl not too far away.
The female was sitting on the nest.
Verreaux's Eagle-Owl  Gambia
She isn't going to win any beauty competitions that's for sure. Neither is the male.
Verreaux's Eagle-Owl  Gambia
He was sat in dense foliage and in poor light but the view was half decent. He decided not to hang around though and flew to a new perch so we left him in peace too.
A quick look at the water troughs back at the guide hut then we were on our way, we were due to return the following week anyway but as Alan said, an Owl in the bag is better than not, grab your opportunity while you can. Likewise, the next stop was the Brown-necked Parrot territory and again, they obliged although at distance and with the sun behind them. A "lifer"
Brown-necked Parrot  Gambia
Off we went yet again before another stop on a forest track. This time Lamin successfully found us some more new species, more lifers for both Alan and myself.
Amongst them, White-shouldered Tit
White-shouldered Tit   Gambia
Greater Honeyguide
Greater Honeyguide   Gambia
and the rather uncommon and desirable "tick" of Black-headed Firefinch
Black-headed Firefinch  Gambia

All nice birds but it reminded me why I don't tend tho do guided birding very much. Great to find new species, not always great from a photographic point of view when more time is needed to stake out territories and habits.
That's not always true though as our next stops demonstrated. Firstly roadside Piapiacs
Piapiac  Gambia
both adult and the pink billed juveniles.
Piapiac  Gambia
A Grasshopper Buzzard was another lifer and despite the perch gave fabulous views
Grasshopper Buzzard  Gambia
Well you can't blame the birds for taking advantage of the man made perches, they are perfect for raptors.
Dark Chanting Goshawk
Dark Chanting Goshawk  Gambia
But fortunately from an aesthetic point not all were found on metal. This Lizzard Buzzard was very confiding.
Lizzard Buzzard  Gambia
Allowing me to wander around looking for different backgrounds to the perch, even add and remove teleconverters to my lens too!
Lizzard Buzzard  Gambia
On we travelled. The road to Tendaba is a superb tarmac highway now with not a great deal of traffic on it, mainly lorries and bush taxis as most locals can't afford to own and run a car. Many people have to walk miles everyday, it's all part of their everyday life but most drivers are happy to give people a lift whenever they can too, even if the seat is a bit precarious !
The road to Georgetown
One thing that was certainly in evidence though were the number of police and army checkpoints. We must have passed  a dozen and more on our way to Tendaba.We passed them all without incident and in every case the authorities were smiling and pleasant even if the proximity of an AK47 is a little disconcerting.
The drive from the coastal tourist zone now only takes about 2 hours non stop but despite leaving at 8.00am we didn't actually arrive at Tendaba until mid afternoon.
Tendaba... now there's a place to conjure up the imagination ! I have heard first hand experience and read loads of comments about Tendaba camp. Trip Advisor reports are pretty dreadful.
We were prepared for the worst and as a result pleasantly surprised. Ok we had the Deluxe rooms which have limited availability I guess, many reports are based on the "standard" ones.
My room was OK and for the record I took a couple of shots just after I arrived.
Tendaba Camp  Gambia
Yes, I have just dumped my camera gear on the bed ! A proper bed not a concrete slab with a mattress which I believe the standard rooms have, the hanging curtain is the doorway  through to the ensuite toilet and shower. A proper toilet and a freezing cold hand held shower but both soap, a towel and toilet paper were provided. Luxury! 
Tendaba Camp  Gambia
Back in the sleeping area there was a TV and a satellite receiver I think. I didn't try either. OK the door is missing of the cupboard but that saves having to open it ! There was an air conditioning unit in my room too, Alan wasn't quite as lucky, he had a fan. There again I didn't try the A/C as it wasn't needed. Alan on the other hand had the benefit of a foot wash in his bathroom which I didn't. OK it was obligatory every time you used the sink as the waste pipe wasn't connected properly but hey ho, a minor complaint ! No the only thing I would fault the room on was that the mosquito net refused to secure itself to the corners of the bed so during the course of the night it slowly became less effective, first making me feel like a fish caught in a net before leaving half of my body exposed to the mozzies.  A top tip, take a can of fly spray !
Anyway, our boat trip was due at 4.00pm and we had a boat booked just for us.
Firstly you cross the rather wide and tidal river before heading up the side channels in the mangroves on the far side. Birds were plentiful, particularly Grey Heron and Darters it seemed.They were everywhere. Grey Heron I wasn't so interested in as we see plenty here in the UK but Darter was something I haven't seen much of, particularly giving views like these were.
African Darter  Gambia
Every overhanging branch seemed to have one sitting on it, usually they flew as the boat approached. Sometimes flying past the boat too !
African Darter  Gambia
Some decent photo opportunities then ! One of the best were a pair of Nile Crocodiles. One on the bank and an even bigger one in the water.
Nile Crocodile  Gambia
The one in the water was a whopper and we were only feet away.
Nile Crocodile  Gambia
I noticed that the guide started bailing out the water at the bottom of the boat with a little more enthusiasm! You would be in big trouble if you found yourself in the water with these two.
 Nile Crocodile  Gambia
However,before sailing we had hoped for 4 target birds... Goliath Heron, Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron and Pel's Fishing Owl.
The first target bird  we came across was the Night heron. The views were so obscured I was amazed that the guide had spotted one. Hardly a view but well, could we tick it ? We decided yes and no ! We could add it to our list but not claim it. Does that make sense ? No, but neither does bird watching !!!!
The one species our guide was confident of was the Goliath Heron but by the time we saw one the light was fading and the views distant.
Goliath Heron
A lifer but a disappointing encounter as far as I was concerned. The next was a mixture of elation and frustration. Almost as we left the mangroves to cross back over to camp the guide spotted the Pel's Fishing Owl. How, I don't know as it was so well camouflaged high up in the now poorly lit tree canopy. The boatman was instructed to reverse, a manoeuvre that meant we were all about to be overcome with engine fumes again ! Still, a bit of carbon monoxide poisoning is a small price to pay because it seems not everyone gets to see this one, in fact it's a bit of a rarity. A combination of noise and fumes and the Owl was soon off but I had managed to fire off a couple of shots. The guides were keen to see what I had got, amazed that I had anything at all. No one else they told me had managed one before. The camp manager asked me to send a copy for their web site, it was a bit embarrassing as the shot is no more than a record shot, certainly not one to be proud of. Still, it is a Pel's Fishing Owl !
Pel's Fishing Owl
I had come away with some I was proud of though. This Darter popped up in front of the boat complete with it's captured prey.
African Darter  Gambia
More engrossed in it's dinner than our presence it ignored us completely.
African Darter  Gambia
As we passed close by all I could get in the frame was the bird's neck and head.
African Darter  Gambia
and we witnessed the demise of the fish as it disappeared down the Darter's throat.
African Darter  Gambia
Well pleased with that one we headed back for some celebratory beers and, despite previously grim reports, a rather superb dinner.
No Finfoot on the first attempt but maybe next time !

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Kotu Creek and surrounds . Day 2.

We started our second day a little later than the first and that suits me. No point of getting up in the dark but I like to be up with the sun. Like the previous day it looked like it was likely to be fairly dull again but at least it was warm and dry and an escape from the British winter.
Alan decided he wanted to spend more time on the bridge getting his eye in on some African species whilst I took the opportunity to try for some more Painted Snipe shots. To be honest with the number of species in the locality I could easily spend another month just photographing them, waiting for the action instead of relying on the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
Pied Kingfisher  Gambia
That was another reason Alan was waiting on the bridge. That chance of seeing something special, the bird everyone was excited  about. I had to weigh up the odds. The Painted Snipe gave much better chances of a sighting but once again, they were very distant. After an hour with no signs they were going to get closer I returned to see how Alan was getting on on the bridge.
Then it showed! 
Literally as I arrived.
I was the first to spot it.
Finfoot  juvenile Gambia
A juvenile African Finfoot isn't the most attractive of birds but it's a bit special all the same. Especially when you can set up your camera and wait for it to reappear out of the darkness on the far side of the bridge.
It swam around the old bridge posts checking out the Oyster shells
Finfoot  juvenile Gambia
and came within a few feet of me.
Finfoot  juvenile Gambia
It swam around lazily before sailing off down the river to disappear in to the mangroves. Wow.
My luck had certainly held this time but it's strange how today's lifer is tomorrows forgotten bird. I wanted to see an adult Finfoot now !
No sooner had the Finfoot vanished when a Pink-backed Pelican came sailing upstream on the rising tide.
Pink-backed Pelican   Gambia
It's a big bird when you compare it to say a Great White Egret.
Great White Egret & Pink-backed Pelican   Gambia
and where else can you sit just outside you hotel and see sights like these in The Gambia ?
The GW Egret was standing within 20 feet of me, ignoring the fact I was sitting out in the open and my camera body makes quiet a disconcerting clicking sound.
Great White Egret   Gambia
Leaving Alan once more alone and at the mercy of the local bird guides... it was an education for him after all.... I spent an agreed couple of hours with my counterfeit Lamin guide walking the golf course. Not much was added from the previous day but I was grateful for at least a record shot of an African Golden Oriole, one that has always escaped me in the past.
African Golden Oriole  Gambia
The Yellow-billed Shrike was a bit more confiding
Yellow-billed Shrike  Gambia
as were a couple of families of Red-billed Hornbill
Red-billed Hornbill    Gambia
but the Blue-bellied Rollers, although plentiful stayed high in the palms.
Blue-bellied  Roller  Gambia
We returned to the refreshment garden via a recently constructed path that avoids making your way across the sticky mud, another indication of some of the work being done by the Birdguide Association
Path to the golf course. Kotu,Gambia
A cold Coke was most welcome, and judging by the two trainee guides I met there, some of the current ones need to hone up on their inter personnel skills.
Apprentice bird guides. Gambia
It was time to pay off Lamin the imposter and go and spend some time on my own.
I later found out that this Lamin knew damn well that he was trying to steal me from the intended Lamin. What he didn't realise of course was that I had already paid up front for all my guiding so there was no way I would have swopped guides anyway. However, fortunately I knew both the Lamins already and I was suspicious of his assertions. He could have hijacked us if he had arranged for a car to pick us up ahead of the scheduled one the next morning. That would have been an interesting scenario but thankfully one that didn't happen.
My opinions of the Birdguide Association remain mixed. On the good side their organisation and attempts to modernise are excellent. There are some talented guides in the group and all 75 authorised ones have to have a level of skill test before getting approval. 
The downside is that they refuse to publish fixed guiding costs, each preferring to negotiate their own fees. This leads to suspicion and in many cases loss of potential clients. The other thing that drives people away is the direct approach to selling themselves. Hassling anyone who walks past doesn't get you good results but many don't seem to appreciate this.
Lamin the imposter will not get my business ever again as a result of his underhand tactics, who when approached by Lamin the genuine about the event he just shrugged his shoulders and replied "that's just business".
Not with me it isn't.
Anyway, pleased to spend some quality time on my own I headed up to the sewerage ponds... where else !!
I was after some Little Grebe shots. We get them locally at home but not from the angle I was photographing them at.
Little Grebe  Gambia
If I had had more time I would have got much closer but I was happy with my efforts
Little Grebe  Gambia
Time to try some flight photography too.
African Jacana
African Jacana  Gambia
Wood Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper   Gambia
and Spur-winged Plover
Spur-winged Plover  Gambia
all making good target species.
One particular bird though captured my attention.
Black-winged Stilt
Black-winged Stilt Gambia
This stunningly elegant bird seems totally inappropriate in a sewerage pond!
Black-winged Stilt Gambia
but I haven't found a better place for photographing them in flight.
Black-winged Stilt Gambia
A great way to end a couple of excellent birding days back on old familiar territory.
We returned to the Tandoori restaurant for another excellent meal even if the service was a bit poor that second evening. Where all the people had come from I don't know but it was packed. Good food gets a good reputation I guess. We were joined by two of Alan's non birding friends who coincidentally were staying at the Senegambia hotel, a firm favourite with many birders. They described the Senegambia Strip as Sodom and Gomorrah but were enjoying it very much ! 
Alan was working on how to entice his other half back to Kotu. It had become an instant favourite.
We would have loved to have stayed longer but we were due off to Tendaba the next morning and were equally looking forward to that as well.