Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Time to reflect and a few travel tips ! Final Day 14.

For our last day at Farakunku we decided to take it easy. I particularly wanted to spend a little time to show Claire some of her surrounds as she'd remained on site at the Lodge all week... and hadn't complained once bless her !
On the last morning I took her on the walk Alan and I had done the previous week down to Tujering beach.
There's not much to see down there, well besides sand and sea of course.
A distinct lack of people which might suit of you like a bit of space !
Tujering Beach bar   Gambia
but there is a simple bar serving cold drinks and , I think, food too.
Tujering Beach bar   Gambia
We wandered the dusty paths and then headed back to our base . I had realised that although I had had lots of opportunities I hadn't actually taken any decent shots of many of the garden birds so I decided that I would spend the afternoon doing just that.
Here for the record, some of Farakunku's finest !
Village Weaver
Village Weaver  Gambia
Black-necked Weaver
Black-necked Weaver   Gambia
African Thrush
 African Thrush   Gambia
Lavender Waxbill
Lavendar Waxbill  Gambia
Tawny-flanked Prinia
Tawny-flanked Prinia
Brown Babbler
Brown Babbler   Gambia
and Bronze Mannikin
Bronze Mannikin  Gambia
There were lots of them but I wanted a single male !
Bronze Mannikin  Gambia
In fact I could have spent days here at Farakunku just getting the shots I was after of the local species. A detailed list of recorded species seen here is available if you ask but we didn't keep an individual one for ourselves.
An enjoyable day of semi relaxation was had by all before catching the flight home.
Now there's a point. To avoid the horrible overnight flight to Manchester, look at the Wednesday flights. I wished we had been staying a few more days to avoid the 4.30 am arrival at Ringway, especially in the middle of January when the weather can be horrendous.

Some other pointers that might be useful. Take cash not plastic. There are not many ATM's in The Gambia and your withdrawal limit is small. You can make multiple withdrawals but it's time consuming and expensive. You'll get a good rate for your £ notes, in fact by far the best rates I have ever had this time around. Between 68-69 delis per £1.

Most things are pretty inexpensive.. a 300cl beer can be anything from 50 dalasai upwards in a tourist bar , quite a bit less in a supermarket. A good meal should cost much less than £10 pp including drinks.

My personal favourite bird watching was at Kotu, Kartong, Brufut and Marakissa. 
The trip out to Tendaba was both enjoyable and rewarding but you could do it in a day if you wanted to now the road is so good. An evening boat trip, which I'm told is the best time, could also be included but you would need to pre-book.
You could of course also use it as an overnight stop on the way to Georgetown too.
Equally you don't really need to go any further than around your local accommodation. The birding everywhere will keep you occupied !

Where to stay ? Well that's personal thing. I have heard derisory comments passed about those who choose to stay in the touristy areas when they are on birding breaks. Some believe the real Gambia can only be found if you stay away from there.
In my experience not the case at all and in all probability if I was only allowed to stay in one place for the whole of my stay I would probably go back to the old faithful. Kotu. It might be a little touristy but it's quiet enough for me, offers a choice of bars and restaurants and some excellent birding.

However, I am not bound by a single choice of venues if I don't take a package tour, and to be honest if you book in advance it is no more expensive to DIY and this gives you much more flexibility as to where you stay and how long for.
I thought Fararakunku was outstanding. Superb accommodation, excellent food and the organised birding trips excellent value. If you are out from dawn to dusk on trips this is ideal but if you like a change of scene each evening maybe you'll not like it as much as I did.

No matter where you go though you should have a great time. The birding is excellent, the welcome very warm. Forget the tales of "bumsters", the con artists that hassle you. They don't seem to be around anymore so you won't feel pestered although the bird guides themselves can be a bit pushy, particularly if you go around looking like David Attenborough complete with camera or binoculars.
The one thing I am certain of though is that you are perfectly safe and free to wander anywhere.
This country deserves your patronage, if you haven't already, give it a try.
I know I'll be back and it won't be long before that happens either.
I'm pretty certain that after his first visit Alan will return again too.
So much to offer, and just a 6 hour flight away!

Go for it.

Hope my blog has been both useful and enjoyable. Catch you again sometime

The final hurdle Day 13

So here we are at last, Day 13 and our last "in the field" day.
We had to decide where to go, Alan, with no previous experience was happy to go along with whatever I thought best. We needed 5 new species to make a combined list of 250. It was a bit of a tall order but we had to give it a shot.
First port of call was to be Pirang Shrimp Farm, one you hear reports of varying results and one where I had been to on my first visit to the Gambia and seen species like Quail Finch which would have been a new one to our list. Today we also had a new driver, Baccaray. As it happens, Baccarat is a Rastafarian, and a really nice guy but I later found out as a Rasta he's a target! The first police check point we came to he was asked for his documents. His licence he could produce but someone ( who won't be named Moses) had forgotten to leave the insurance documents in the car too. It appears that all was settled amicably with the appropriate monies changing hands... without receipts of course.
That only caused a small delay, but the puncture we got at Pirang took a lot longer for him to fix as it also appeared there wasn't jack in the car either. Whilst Baccaray went about solving how to change the wheel, Alan,Lamin and myself went to check out what we could see.
Not a lot as it happened !
I wandered up on to the bank which overlooks the shrimp ponds and was very quickly approached by a local who told me I had crossed over the no-go line and I'd have to go back. It was an amiable kind of telling off. I didn't ask him why the area was so sacrosanct but I did mention that the ponds were extremely dry. In fact they were bone dry. There wouldn't be a shrimp in here for many a long month if indeed not year. Once again, the lack of rain and global warming was discussed. I told him we were getting too much rain in the UK and as he rightly pointed out, what is largely an inconvenience for us is matter of life and death for them. A sobering thought.
Anyway, I had managed to capture an image of a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater in the out of bounds area.
Little Green Bee-eater  Gambia
But what I had been after was a Cut-throat Finch shot, it was also one of the species I had seen before but Alan hadn't. Unfortunately he missed it that day too !
To kill time whilst waiting for the tyre change, Lamin and I walked the half mile or so to the river. Not much to report down there but with nothing better to do I took some shots of Pied Crow, realising as yet I hadn't taken any at all.
Pied Crow   Gambia
We were about to leave when Lamin spotted a Zitting Cisticola, a new one at last.
Zitting Cisticola   Gambia
Not a good shot even for a record but I think he called it correctly.
Next stop was just off the entrance to Pirang village and the cemetery. Here we got our second prize for the day, not one but a pair of Pearl Spotted Owlet.
Pearl Spotted Owlet    Gambia
Happy with that, amazingly a Lanner Falcon flew briefly overhead. One for Alan if not for me. My request to visit Pirang had paid off after all but to be honest Lamin had been right to question my request to go there, I wouldn't recommend a visit to anyone else.
By this time we had lost at least and hour and a half because of the tyre change so we made a change to our pre planned trip. Lamin Rice fields were dropped and instead we headed straight for Banjul and the Bund Rd.
We had considered Abuko, I think it's been renamed Eagle Heights, but it was always an iffy call. With most of the likely possible species we'd get there already seen we decided to give it a miss. It was a longish walk and 500 dalasai ( over £21 for three of us) to get in and sit in the photo hide on the off chance of a Western Bluebill. No we'd miss that too. It seems that Abuko has been taken over by some Europeans who want to make it more of a zoo and hawk flying centre. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has actually been since this change happened but I do know the local bird guides aren't too happy about the huge increase in entrance fee.
No, the Bund Rd was a place we hoped we'd see Flamingoes, one of the very few likely spots in The Gambia.
As we got closer, security increased dramatically. Banjul was ringed by police and army checkpoints but we got past them all without a problem. Parked up overlooking the mudflats we had distant views of hundreds of gulls and waders. 
Pied Avocet ! 2 to go !
Alan got his scope set up whilst I chased after a Woodcut Shrike along the side of the road.
Woodchat Shrike   Gambia
In the process I spotted a White Wagtail and when I got back, too late to point it out to Alan, he'd had a Ruff which was no longer there for me to see either ! Just one to go then!
Then Alan got them, way, way in the distance. Yellow-billed Stork.
Lamin and I set off across the mud flats to try and get closer for a photo but we abandoned it half way there. The mud was crusty but underneath was who knows what. It looked disgusting and I wasn't about to sink in to it !
I made do with this.
Yellow-billed Stork  Gambia
Magnificent, we'd done it. 250 species seen by both of us. Not a bad result at all and by far the best haul I have had on a birding trip.
Satisfied we left but on the way back towards Cape Point we were stopped by the army checkpoint. A friendly exchange of words in a dialect that I can't understand and a handshake saw us on our way. Both the squaddie and our driver would make superb card sharps. I only just caught sight of the corner of the note as it was palmed away.
With nothing doing at Cape Point we decided on one last nostalgic visit to where we had begun our adventure. Kotu Bridge and the guiding hut.
Sat in there for 30 minutes I was able to get some shots of Blackcap Babbler
Blackcap Babbler  Gambia
and White-crowned Robin-chat
White-crowned Robin-chat  Gambia
but the top target was too elusive and I failed to get it, Oriole Warbler. Still, we saw it. 
A great way to finish.
Heading back to Farakunku for the last time, dropping Lamin off on the way, we reflected on what a brilliant trip it had been.
Tomorrow we were heading home, but we had one last day to wander locally as we didn't need to be in the airport until early evening.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Bonto and Tujering Woods Day 12

Well if yesterday had been a good day for photography, bad one for new species, today would prove to be quite the opposite.
On a rather dull but warm day we headed straight for Bonto Forest, where we had previously called in to see the two Owl species when on our way to Tendaba. Once again the maxim of "grab it while you can" proved to be right. On this second visit there was no sign of the Northern White Faced and only the male Verreaux put in the briefest of appearances.
Knowing that heavily shaded woods are a non starter for photography I left Alan and Lamin to scramble about in the undergrowth and I headed off for the brighter edge of the first where earlier Lamin had called out some Stone Partridge right in to the open of a sandy track.
Lovely little birds, they are almost comical in their behaviour.
Stone  Partridge   Gambia
My wanderings proved to be of little point, I found a few Northern Red Bishops feeding on the grass, this one in danger of an Ant attack !
Northern Red Bishop  Gambia

But before long I went back to the drinking station to see what that might reveal. Not much more than we'd had the previous visit, Village Weaver and again the Little Greenbul

Little Greenbul   Gambia
but by the time Alan got back we did manage to spot an African Paradise Flycatcher to add to our Red-bellied sighting. He had done reasonably well foraging in the undergrowth and had added three more species to the list so our combined effort had suddenly taken a boost but overall I was now lagging one behind him. I might not be a lister but I am quite competitive whenever a challenge is thrown down !
As yet we hadn't had a Pearl Spotted Owlet and Lamin reckoned he knew where we might find one so we headed off in that direction. Sadly we didn't connect but I did get a half decent shot of a Senegal Coucal while we were looking.

Senegal Coucal   Gambia
Then we saw something I was very pleased to get a second attempt at !
Yellow-billed Oxpecker!
Only these were on a Donkey.
I had been delighted to see and photograph them at Tendaba but I wasn't happy that I had made the best of the opportunity, now I had a second chance. As I approached they all flew off to the nearest tree but  I realised that there was one particular individual that had stayed behind, far too engrossed in feeding !
Yellow-billed Oxpecker   Gambia
I hadn't realised that Oxpeckers will feed on the host animal as well as any parasites they find.
Yellow-billed Oxpecker   Gambia
I felt really sorry for the poor Donkey as before long the rest of the small group had returned too, perhaps all waiting to have their share.
Yellow-billed Oxpecker   Gambia
These rather sweet looking birds were causing the poor beast much irritation and that sore would only get worse I imagine.
Yellow-billed Oxpecker   Gambia
Anyway, I left them to it. We headed off to Tujering woods, well they call it that but it was more like open savannah to me. Perhaps we only saw a small part of it. What we did though was quite rewarding. Firstly a juvenile Striped Kingfisher showing out in the open.
Striped Kingfisher   Gambia
Then a good view of Grey Woodpecker
Grey Woodpecker  Gambia
That was one we'd seen before but the next two were not.
Red-winged Warbler
Red-winged Warbler   Gambia
and White-fronted Black-chat
White-fronted Black-chat   Gambia
The light had been pretty poor all day, not good for my photography but even worse for Claire's sunbathing back at Farakunku . Still a nice dinner and a few drinks would cheer her up and with 8 new species added to the list during the day, we were actually believing we could make our target 250 after all. We needed 5 more on our last trip out. The question was where would we find them ?

Marakissa Day11

The last time I went to Marakissa it was bit of a disaster ! Our driver/guide managed to get us stuck in deep sand on the nearby road to our destination, The River Camp,and it took us well over an hour to dig ourselves out.No sooner had we got there than my travelling companion for the day started to feel unwell and we headed home at lunch time.We didn't see too much that day but I was aware that there are possibilities for some new species to see and so was looking forward to a repeat visit.
Before heading to the camp though, Lamin took us somewhere else not too far away. What looked like a fairly uninteresting pool with a few Jacanas on it turned out to be pretty good !
I sat myself down on the edge of the water to see if I could get some shots of the Jacanas which, if given the opportunity , will settle down and are quite confiding.
These proved no exception
African Jacana  Gambia
Like father, like son.
African Jacana  Gambia
or they could well be mother and daughter but either way I wouldn't want to try getting school shoes to fit the youngsters !
Suddenly, out of a tiny gap in the reeds over on the far side I saw a dark object starting to emerge. I called Alan over to take a look.
Allen's Gallinule  Gambia
This was a bit different ! By process of elimination we decided, correctly as it turned out, this was Allen's Gallinule, a juvenile.
Allen's Gallinule  Gambia
Lamin confirmed it on his return from a recce but was as surprised as we were to find it there. Nice one! Unfortunately it kept it's distance in the time we were there but out of the same dark recess a whole family of Black Crake emerged too.
Black Crake   Gambia
This normally shy species seemed quite happy well out in to the open, giving me my best photo opportunities ever.
Black Crake   Gambia
The area was known for African Pygmy Kingfisher and much to our amazement Lamin found us one. Unfortunately it was sat in a very awkward place, my attempts to get a better shot sadly flushed it so we had to settle for some poor records instead. Nearby a Broad-billed Roller was showing well.
Broad-billed Roller   Gambia
and as we headed back to the car, an Intermediate Egret was close enough for a photograph too.
Intermediate Egret   Gambia
That's when Lamin came up trumps again. Alan and I would have walked right past it but he spotted what we failed to.
The African Pygmy Kingfisher !
Pygmy Kingfisher     Gambia
It sat and posed for us to try different camera exposures and settings to try and cope with the dappled sunlight and deep shade.
Pygmy Kingfisher     Gambia
I was delighted as my only previous encounter was with a rather wet and bedraggled specimen which had been taking a bath at Abuko !
This was turning out to be a rather good day and we hadn't even reached the River Camp yet !
Setting off in the car again I was amazed to find the entrance to the River Camp just off the rather grand tarmac road. Obviously a recent and welcome addition !
With lunch ordered in advance it turned out a buffet had been organised as there were a total of 19 people expected... all at once. I think there were already a few extra who had already eaten so the viewing station surrounded by water bowls was rather crowded.
Still in between the rushes we did get some rather good birds.
The Spotted Honeyguide, this time showing pretty well despite the deep shade.
Spotted Honeyguide   Gambia
There were Purple Glossy Starlings everywhere
Purple Glossy Starling  Gambia
Even in deep shade their colours shining through magnificently.
Purple Glossy Starling  Gambia
These two Green Wood Hoopoe looked as if they were about to star in a nursery rhyme
Green Wood Hoopoe   Gambia
The Beautiful Sunbird living up to it's name.
Beautiful Sunbird   Gambia
I suppose the one slight disappointment was the Violet Turaco. Along with the Green Turaco they had been way up my target list for several visits and up to this trip I had failed. With the Green one now reasonably well caught, the Violet remained.
It made a very brief appearance but was joined by a Piapiac which ruined my only shot !
Violet Turaco  Gambia
Well, that and a stick through it's head !
After lunch which we both wished we hadn't eaten (buffets are not good for you, especially at lunch time, as you eat too much) we went looking for two new species known to be around. We failed on the Bush-shrike but after spending a good 20 minutes looking in the same tree, Lamin found the roosting Scops Owl.
I had long given up but he was determined to find it and eventually he did.
2015-01-21 at 16-40-38
Yep, that's it ! A blurred eye bang in the middle of the picture. There was no way I could hand hold my camera steady enough to get the Owl in focus some 30 feet up in the canopy. Ok, it's only an eye but I guess it counts ! One new tick ! The eyesight of the locals never fails to amaze me.
Moving on from the River Camp we had one more treat in store, a rather large watering hole. With late afternoon approaching things were getting active!
The first mass visitors were a herd of cows which I found myself surrounded by but once they moved on the birds started to approach too,
A flock of Purple Glossy Starling looked fabulous in the sunlight.
Purple Glossy Starling  Gambia
particularly when joined by the contrasting yellow of the Village Weavers.
Village Weaver   Gambia
I put my 2.0x teleconverter on to try and get some closer shots.
Purple Glossy Starling  Gambia
but it wasn't needed for the next arrival that put them all to flight.
An African Harrier Hawk
2015-01-21 at 17-46-26 (1)
You don't get the opportunity to see these on the ground that often, and certainly not this close I wouldn't think.
2015-01-21 at 17-48-34 (1)
It actually looks a far more attractive bird than when seen in flight !
2015-01-21 at 17-48-59
They are a bit weird though, their head looks to weedy and small, their legs too long and spindly for their rather large body mass. Well, that's my opinion anyway !
No sooner had the Harrier Hawk gone than two Hooded Vultures arrived for their turn.
Hooded Vulture  Gambia
They too frightening most smaller birds away.
Still, a great days birding which had proven to be an excellent day for my photography too. As we were packing up I had one last treat, a fly by Violet Turaco. A bit of a grab shot but it shows off the wing colours quite nicely.
Violet Turaco  Gambia

Although it had been an excellent day's outing our list had only grown by 4. We were now standing at 237 with only two more days of trips to go. Our target was suddenly looking a bit too big to achieve.
Tomorrow we were heading firstly to Bonto Woods again, then to Tujering. We'd have to wait and see what developed.