Monday, 26 February 2018

Finding your way Part 3

As an overview to what I'm talking about in terms of places I thought it a good idea to share some maps and photos of Kotu. The photos are old ones I'm afraid as I didn't take any scenic style ones this last visit.
The aerial view of Kotu demonstrates just how much undeveloped land there is in and around the creek and it's this that makes it such an attractive proposition to someone like me who gets easily bored lying by the pool.
Compare it to the road map and I have attempted to show the various routes that can be taken from the Bakutu Hotel to the main places I am mentioning.
Kotu map
Leaving the hotel via the back footpath you avoid going over the mud flats which can be viewed from a platform in the hotel's grounds.
Instead you turn a sharp left through a pathway through the bushes and you emerge on to a path leading on to one of the golf course fairways which appear parched and brown on the aerial map.
The golf course is popular with birders but from a photographers point of view I find it has less of an appeal.
Turning right  and up the hill along the fairway you will pass the "green" and beyond it a bridge across the creek. Another right takes you along a raised path avoiding the mud in the mangroves although having said that the path had worn down considerably this time as it probably gets totally submerged on the odd occasion.
2015-01-12 at 14-45-43

Follow your nose past the bird guides garden place ( you can get a cold inexpensive soft drink here too) and you reach the path marked on the map as "Wandelpad".
From here you have various options to explore, including directly across towards the sewage ponds.
2015-01-12 at 10-37-47
These ponds used to be excellent but totally revolting. One pond would be full of fresh sewage, another covered in lush growth of lily and other pond plants whilst two appeared to be full of water.A couple of years ago a new management company took over and the pools were all cleaned out but it appears as if plants have now been deliberately put in each corner which helps attract birds once again. Birders are charged a nominal amount to wander around them but I preferred to visit the other water holes on the grounds that they were more hygienic!
Back to the "Wandelpad" and that will take you through the rice fields down to the main road and Kotu Bridge. 
2015-01-12 at 08-56-50
A daily vulture and kite feeding programme happens near here at around 11.00am.It's also a central meeting point, the place where the bird guides tout for business and a great spot to do some photography too. The bird guides have started running canoe trips from here too and they are proving very popular.
Turn left and continue to the next right to take you to either the big pool behind the Badala Park or follow the road down to the Palm Beach hotel , go through the hotel grounds and on to the beach.
The Greater Painted Snipe hide is located around there.
2015-01-12 at 12-08-34
Inexplicably having spent time and effort building it the Bird Guides Association have let it fall in to virtual total disrepair since I took this photo 3 years ago although curiously access to it through the mangroves has been greatly improved by a pathway of old car tyres filled with hard mud.
Once you have arrived at the beach you can also continue south for approximately 4 kms until you reach the Senegambia Hotel which is fairly obvious due to the number of people on sun loungers which are above the now constructed tidal protection scheme. The Senegambia gardens are worth checking out as are those of the Kairaba Hotel too. Both theses hotels are located in the popular Senegambia Strip area. A lot more food and drink options here but a lot noisier and crowded too once out of the hotel grounds.
It's a matter of personal preference of course but Kotu is my favoured location. Some folk are disparaging of the tourist area altogether but I like the fact you have a choice of eating and drinking each evening whereas staying elsewhere you can be stuck with no choice other than to stay put.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Badala Pool Part 2

Over the years I have been visiting The Gambia, the pool situated behind the Badala Park hotel has gone from a great birding spot to one that was virtually in accessible and now, back to brilliant!
The main attraction to me is that it's one of two spots in the locality that's excellent for Greater Painted Snipe which is a real favourite of mine.
Painted Snipe are a rather cautious bird so getting good views isn't easy but on my very first visit I managed to spot one.
A female who had just had a bath.
Greater Painted-snipe. Rostratula benghalensis
She didn't notice me at first and I was able to get closer
Greater Painted-snipe. Rostratula benghalensis
but she must have heard the camera shutter and decided to move!
Greater Painted-snipe. Rostratula benghalensis
Still it was a great start!
A large part of the pool is filled with reeds and that's where many of the birds, including the Snipe often hide out. Hundreds of Cattle Egrets choose it as their overnight roost too but on one visit I also spotted a Purple Heron in there, the only one I saw in TG this year too.
Purple Heron  Ardea purpurea
There was plenty of open water though and along the muddy margins there were several species of waders including the elegant Black-winged Stilt.
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 32018-01-28
There was a pair that stayed for the duration I was there.
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
A couple of Wood Sandpipers and a Greenshank appeared to be more or less permanent residents too and both species allowed really close approach despite me sitting out in the open.
Common Greenshank  Tringa nebularia
You never seem to get this close in the UK, certainly not when in open view anyway.
Common Greenshank  Tringa nebularia
Fishing further out in the pond was a Little Grebe which didn't get quite as close but presumably because the water was too shallow.
Little Grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis
but you could still get those low level shots that are not possible from many of the places I visit at home.
My favourite shots though, well beside the Snipe, were of a pair of Speckled Pigeons that dropped in for a drink.
Speckled Pigeon  Columba guinea
Not often you get an opportunity like this one!
Speckled Pigeon  Columba guinea
Another species I was delighted to get close to was Marsh Sandpiper
Marsh Sandpiper   Tringa stagnatilis
A rather elegant fine billed bird and one I hadn't been able to photograph as well as I would have liked to in the past.
Marsh Sandpiper   Tringa stagnatilis
This one just ignored me!
Marsh Sandpiper   Tringa stagnatilis
A Great Egret dropped by on one visit.
Great Egret  Ardea alba
The setting sun giving me a problem with exposing the whites but the reflections on the pool were lovely.
It was the Snipe that kept dragging me back though, I was determined I could do better. On several visits I failed to locate them but the one day I got lucky, well sort of!
Greater Painted-snipe. Rostratula benghalensis
I had sneaked up on the feeding bird noticed when suddenly a Cattle Egret flew in so low the bird panicked and flew off!
Greater Painted-snipe. Rostratula benghalensis
Curses! I stood up and walked back to the open end of the pool and casually walked out to my favoured spot to photograph the waders.
Stupid me hadn't noticed there she was, sat on the edge of the water, right out in the open.
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis
With a quick shake she was off again.
Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis
Ah well, can't win 'em all!

Gambia , the return to an old favourite! Part 1.

I have lost count of the times I have been to The Gambia but for wife Claire and I it ticks all the boxes. Not too far to travel from the UK, low cost packages are available, winter sun and fabulous birding. When we returned from our very expensive but ultimately disappointing trip to the Far East I immediately checked out the internet to see what was available and found a 2 week package tour with Thomas Cook and staying at our new favourite hotel, The Bakutu, for less than £1200 B&B for the two of us, I grabbed it.
Why suffer the miserable British winter if you don't have to?
With one eye on our total budget I set off with little intention of taking a guided trip, I might take a taxi somewhere I knew if I got bored with the local birding, but I wasn't prepared to pay large amounts to see places I have already been to. Having stayed in the Kotu area of The Gambia I know exactly where to go and what to expect,,,, or do I ?!
Dependant on what time of year you visit you will find a different scene. By January the rice crops in the local fields have been gathered and the paddy fields have dried out. One or two might still be holding some water, and as it gets hotter, water is harder to find and as such these pools can be magnets for some species.I was delighted to find one such pool very close to Kotu Bridge which on my first morning gave me excellent views of African Spoonbill
African Spoonbill  Platalea alba
and during the course of the week several other species too!
Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret   Bubulcus ibis
Wood Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Squacco Heron
Squacco Heron   Ardeola ralloides
Little Egret
Little Egret  Egretta garzetta
Intermediate Egret.
Intermediate Egret    Mesophoyx intermedia
Some were regulars but others such as the Spoonbill and this Striated Heron were one off opportunities.
Striated Heron   Butorides striata
When you are staying locally it can get a bit monotonous walking the same paths every day, in fact the same paths you have walked many times before this trip, but you never know what might turn up and sometimes you get lucky.
To find a pool like this, so close to our hotel, where you can get up close and personal with your subject is why I keep on going back.
Great White Egret.
Great Egret  Ardea alba
This isn't the only pool though, slightly further to walk but just as productive is the Badala pool.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The end of the road Part 15.

After almost a month our journey was coming to an end, our guide in India, well aware that there were a lot of dissatisfied customers amongst the three coaches decided to arrange a night out in Delhi for our final evening. This meant we had to start our journey back from Jaipur fairly early as it was a long drive again, over 6 hours. 
A benefit along the way though was a loo break and to my delight there were some good birds in the garden area!
These Red-wattled Lapwings appeared everywhere we'd been in India but not as close as this one!
Red-wattled lapwing   Vanellus indicus
A hunting White-throated Kingfisher was equally confiding
White-throated Kingfisher    Halcyon smyrnensis
and the Olive-backed Sunbird was one I hadn't photographed before.
Olive-backed Sunbird   Cinnyris jugularis
Back on the coach we arrived back at our hotel in Dwarka early afternoon with time to get ready for a 6.00pm departure in to Delhi for our final nights complimentary cultural show and dinner.
The show was OK, in fact I quite enjoyed it but the dinner, an outdoor BBQ under the stars had a sting in the tail. Luckily, it was 48 hours later when "Delhi Belly" struck and I had arrived back home. It must have been the BBQ because quite a few people who were there suffered. I remember remarking to Claire that they didn't seem to be leaving food on the coals for very long before serving them and one kebab I tried eating was cold in the middle. I left the rest but it only takes a mouthful. Had we been at the front of the queue perhaps the food would have been cooked a lot longer than for those of us at the back!
Travelling in and out of Delhi added another 3 hours driving to our day and by the time we got to bed it was late. Still, unlike the majority on the tour, we had opted for regional airports in the UK and our flight didn't leave until 9.00pm whereas most had to be on their way to the airport by around 7.00am! 
The hotel's breakfast area was a lot less crowded by 9.00am but it still took forever to order an omelette, they want £40 to extend the checkout by 4 hours and around £12 for a day's WiFi.
There is no way I'd recommend anyone to stay there, they are in my opinion, manipulating their Trip Advisor reports too. Strange that all those 5 star reviews, over 50 for december, were written by first time posters and the handful written by others gave poor reviews.
Ah well, we were stuck there for the day. Having experienced the travel in to Delhi we decided it wasn't worth the risk of arriving back late and missing the collection for the airport or indeed our flight.
I spent the morning wandering in a small local park whilst Claire sat by the pool. A low key end to this mammoth trip.
Would we recommend it to anyone else?
No, I'm afraid not.
We felt that we were deceived by the brochure and that the travel company didn't deliver what was promised. 
With hindsight trying to take in so many countries in one trip is probably not a good idea either. It's a better idea to stay longer and split it in to two holidays. You get better value for your VISA and the you spend less time on travelling from A to B. Less travel also means cost saving too.
We ended up sending a letter of complaint to our tour company who responded with an offer of compensation amounting to 4% of the cost. It was rejected by nearly all those who complained and in fairness the company came back with an enhanced offer of almost 7% which was deemed acceptable. However, what was done was done and we'd have preferred to have had a properly organised tour, we didn't embark on it seeking a refund but we did expect value for money.
That said we do have some special memories. The Great Wall of China with no crowds, the incredible Bullet Train and the Taj Mahal were all exceptional. We also met some lovely people too.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The end of the triangle Part 15

It was going to be hard to top the visit to the Taj Mahal but we still had Jaipur and the Amber Fort to visit.
We spent two nights in Jaipur although we only had one full day there. The journey from Agra took about 6 hours and it got slower as we arrived in Jaipur itself.
The one constant though was that in all the towns and cities we went through the sights and sounds of India were fascinating. 
Shops selling all sorts of things
Usually very small but always interesting!
Where else will you see an Elephant walking down the street?
Or being held up in traffic for a wedding procession!

It was wedding season, yes there is one, and Jaipur is the wedding capital of India.
It's a huge business and there are wedding gardens everywhere.
Wedding tent,Jaipur.
Something for every budget presumably.
Wedding tent,Jaipur.
The guest list can run in to thousands at the top end of the scale!
Before checking in to our hotel we had a dinner date arranged by our tour. We could have done without it really as it had been a long day but it was nice to have a party atmosphere out in the open air whilst being entertained by traditional dancers
no matter how bizarre it seemed having someone with a pile of pots on their head performing next to the dinner table.
We got to bed eventually and it was nice to know we were not driving too far the next day either. Our journey that began in Singapore seems non stop.
The major attraction in Jaipur is the Amber Fort and this is only part of it, 
Amber Fort ,Jaipur.

out of the picture there are separate forts for housing the barracks.

Amber Fort, Jaipur.

Most of our group were keen to experience an Elephant ride up to the fort so we duly went along with them. Whilst waiting in the queue for an Elephant I was delighted to spot a Bluethroat.
Had I not seen several in Spain earlier in the year I would have been extremely delighted!
Eventually we got to the head of the queue and our turn to get on an Elephant, well to sit in a metal tray that was strapped to an Elephant.
Photo by Barry Stone
To say it's the most uncomfortable ride I have ever experienced is no understatement but it was a good laugh if I'm honest. However it did take quite some time to reach the top and every inch of the way meant getting shaken and banged against the iron retains rails. Painful!
Amber Fort ,Jaipur.
We made it eventually and were deposited safely on the ramparts or was it always an Elephant stop?
Amber Fort ,Jaipur.
A walk around the fort to see the highlights didn't take too long.
There didn't seem to be that much to see but there again, perhaps we weren't shown it. There was another plan afoot.
Yes, the hand made carpet factory!
Local crafts
Just the one working loom but upstairs hundreds of carpets in the sale room. Call me cynical but were they really all made downstairs? Of course not.
Carpet sales
Anyway some people were impressed enough to buy and as long as someone is they will keep on taking you back to these places. I spent over £100 on herbal medicines during a moment of madness when visiting a traditional Beijing hospital in 2014. They remain untouched to this day!
I won't do it again though, once bitten etc!
The afternoon visits to another palace, another "local craft shop" visit selling jewellery and a science park were less than memorable but the final act of the day was great fun.
A Rickshaw Bicycle ride!
I felt sorry for the drivers having to pedal uphill with a load of over weight ( generally speaking) Europeans. I decided to hop out and give him a push up the hill and to finish the route I ordered him in the back while I took over the front!
He didn't stay there for long and jumped out when he saw me steer straight in to the traffic! 
Wasn't my fault the steering on what must be a century old bike was totally shot!
Still, we survived but when Claire gave him a tip I asked for half but he wasn't prepared to share it.
It was a good end to the day!