A 12-day birdwatching tour to Gambia With more than 20 years experience and almost 50 previous trips under our belt, our November birdwatching tour to Gambia is widely regarded as the best there is. Six nights at the sunny coast, crammed with great birding, plus five nights upriver, including boat trips and 'creek crawls' in search of specialities such as Egyptian Plover, African Finfoot, Northern Carmine Bee-eater - and many more! We have upgraded and revamped our itinerary for 2017/2018 to include accommodation at one of the country's finest beachside hotels, plus visits to some terrific 'new found' birding locations and a finale boat trip at the coast.
With more than twenty years experience and almost 50 previous visits to Gambia behind us, our November birdwatching tour to this bird-rich corner of West Africa is widely regarded as the best there is.And if the prospect of wall-to-wall sunshine and wonderful winter birding appeals to you, then tropical Gambia is hard to beat!
We certainly won't have to venture far to be immersed in a world of Senegal Parrots, Splendid Sunbirds and Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus, species as exotic in appearance as their names sound to the ear. Birds are abundant everywhere in Gambia and we will not only encounter a host of vibrant West African residents but also have the pleasure of seeing many of our 'own' familiar summer migrants, here in their warm winter quarters.
Our tour begins with four nights on Gambia's sunny Atlantic coast, where we stay at one of the country's very best beachside hotels - and where we are ideally placed to visit the top birding sites of the Gambia's lower river region. From Tanji and Brufut Forests to the bird-rich areas around Kuloro, we will enjoy noisy flocks of busy weavers, bishops and waxbills in the cultivated lands, nimble African Jacanas and snake-necked African Darters in quiet, secluded pools and Green and Violet Turacos, Oriole Warbler and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher in areas of lush tropical canopy. Adding to the fun are the Gambia's many wetlands: mangrove, marsh and tidal creek - all alive with birds and all within easy reach of our excellent hotel with its inviting swimming pool and palm-fringed beach.
Leaving the coast, we trace the course of the Gambia River inland in our quest for the beautiful Egyptian Plover. Known locally as the 'Crocodile Bird', this exquisitely patterned courser is one of the world's most sensational looking waders. Yet it needn't be everybody's favourite on this tour. For startling colour, few sights can compare with a flock of gorgeous Northern Carmine Bee-eaters hawking over a sunlit belt of grassland, while for pure character little can rival the sight of Black Herons adopting their famous 'umbrella' feeding stance.
Here we also enjoy a boat trip on the slow-flowing Gambia River, plus a couple of special 'creek-crawls', nosing gently through the riparian mangroves by motorised pirogue. The elusive African Finfoot, iconic African Fish Eagle and lovely African Blue Flycatcher await, along with the aptly named Goliath Heron and fabulous White-backed Night Heron. We should see Nile Crocodile and Hippopotamus, too!
After spending five nights 'upriver', we return to the coast, where visits to Tujereng, Tanji and the wetlands at Kartong complete our stay. The latter may be one of Gambia's newest birding locations, but the area is already reckoned to be amongst the best anywhere in the country. The ringing station here regularly turns up surprises and our last visit there (in February 2017) produced two vagrant Cuckoo-finches, part of an unprecedented incursion into the region for this peculiar species.
Kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers... whatever your personal choice, with upwards of 260 species of birds to look forward to on this exciting holiday, everyone is sure to return home with a host of special memories from our Quest for the Crocodile Bird.
Limosa has been operating bird tours to Gambia since 1994 and we have now run almost 50 trips there. Guide Gary Elton first led this tour for us in November 2009 and our autumn 2018 holiday will be his 12th visit there for Limosa. Joining him as usual is our specialist Gambian bird guide, Dembo Sonko, who now has well over a decade of experience guiding Limosa's Gambia tours.
Want to see the exquisite Egyptian Plover?... this is the trip!
6 nights at one of Gambia's very best coastal hotels
Birds of prey, shorebirds, turacos, kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, sunbirds...
5 nights upriver, seeking a host of West African specialities
Red-throated, Swallow-tailed and Northern Carmine Bee-eaters
Includes a boat trip upriver plus two mangrove 'creek-crawls' at Tendaba
African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron, African Fish Eagle, Hippopotamus
Visit to Kartong for wetland birds... and a finale boat trip at the coast
Expertly led by Limosa's Gary Elton and our specialist Gambian bird guide Dembo Sonko
Please do keep in mind that this is Africa and it may occasionally be necessary to adjust the running order of the itinerary below due to operational and logistical reasons beyond our control. However, the places visited and birds to be looked for will remain the same as described below.
➕ Day 1 FLY BANJUL, TRANSFER TO THE KAIRABA HOTEL
Our November birdwatching tour to Gambia begins with a morning charter flight from London Gatwick to Banjul, and transfer to our excellent hotel on the country's sunny Atlantic coast. Flights permitting, we may arrive in time to enjoy a little late afternoon birding around the hotel grounds, where the likes of Green Wood Hoopoe, White-crowned Robin-chat, Red-billed Firefinch and other exotic local residents provide first-time visitors with a truly magical welcome. Night Kairaba Hotel
➕ Days 2-4 COASTAL GAMBIA REGION: BRUFUT, TUJERENG, KULORO, FARASUTU, TANJI, MARAKISSA
We divide our time at the coast into two, with four nights at the start of the tour plus a further two at the end to make for a more relaxing tour. During our stay here we will visit Gambias key coastal birding sites. The following outline programme is intended only as a guide and we may decide to vary this a little locally according to conditions, habitat and up-to-date news:
With a wealth of great birding spots close at hand, we will not need to journey far to enjoy our first full days in the field. Hooded Vulture, African Wattled Lapwing, Western Red-billed Hornbill, Bearded Barbet, Blue-bellied Roller, Yellow-billed Shrike, Western Olivaceous and Melodious Warblers, Piapiac and the gaudy Yellow-crowned Gonolek are among an abundance of birds awaiting our discovery.
A little further from our hotel, village life around Kuloro provides just the right mix of cultivation and scrub to produce a wealth of good birding. A bewilderment of doves will provide a background to our birding here as we seek out prinias, cisticolas, cameropteras, waxbills, bishops and weavers a-plenty. We shall also be keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that our local contacts can point us in the direction of roosting Northern White-faced and Greyish Eagle Owls. In the denser swamp forest at nearby Farasutu, we may even be lucky to add the elusive African Wood Owl to our list whilst also enjoying forest specialists such as Grey-headed Bristlebill, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green Crombec and Yellow-throated Leaf-love.
The fields around Tujereng offer wide skies - great for scanning for raptors, with African Harrier-hawk, Wahlbergs Eagle and Beaudouins Snake Eagle amongst those well be hoping for. Mixed flocks of weavers and glossy starlings conspire to tax our identification skills, and other delights here include Striped Kingfisher, Brown-backed Woodpecker, White-fronted Black Chat and Black-crowned Tchagra. Iridescent Splendid and Variable Sunbirds zip past from time to time, while wintering Woodchat Shrikes and Whinchats add a familiar Western Palearctic feel.
Marakissa lies close to the southern border with Senegal and its varied habitats - including secondary woodland, scrub, swamps and ponds - form a great place for birds. We've enjoyed African Green Pigeon, Spotted Honeyguide, Grey-headed Bushshrike, African Golden Oriole and Northern Puffback here in the past. Nests of the noisy and highly gregarious Village Weaver are impossible to miss as they adorn many of the trees at Marakissa. Over lunch at a nearby river camp we can watch for thirsty birds visiting the lodges strategically placed drinking containers: Piapiacs, Brown and Blackcap Babblers, and Long-tailed and Purple Glossy Starlings are regularly seen, along with the cheeky little Gambian Sun Squirrel.
Not far away, at the Darsilami wetlands, we may find the tiny Malachite Kingfisher perched alongside the delicate Marsh Sandpiper and bug-eyed Senegal Thick-knees.
Tanji Bird Reserve is an attractive area of coastal Guinea Savanna woodland, laced with more open scrub. Here we may find residents such as Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Black Scimitarbill, Fanti Saw-wing, Stone Partridge, the stunning Broad-billed Roller, Northern Crombec, Senegal Eremomela (easier to see than to say!), the exquisite Variable Sunbird and the comical-looking White Helmetshrike. A check along the nearby shore often yields a sizeable roost of terns and gulls, where we have found Lesser Crested Tern and Audouins Gull.
At Tanji beach, the chaotic mix of people and birds around this busy fishing village can be electric. When the boats are in, the sight and sound of so many birds - tussling Ospreys, Slender-billed and Grey-headed Gulls, and Caspian and Royal Terns, often at close quarters - can be a real spectacle! The beach here is perhaps the most reliable place in Gambia to look for Kelp Gull. Pied Kingfishers perch on roadside wires, while the presence of familiar winter waders such as Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling along the shore will remind us of home - even though the tropical temperatures may not!
If time and tides permit, we may enjoy some further coastal birding amongst the network of tidal creeks, inlets and open mudflats near Banjul. Here, one could watch for hours as a plethora of wetland birds come and go: Western Reef Egrets and Whimbrel stalk the tidal flats for crabs and the likes of Pink-backed Pelican, Osprey, Royal and Caspian Terns, Senegal Thick-knee and Wood and Curlew Sandpipers offer a strange mix of the familiar and unfamiliar as dazzling Pied Kingfishers hover above the shallow water before plunging in for their next meal. Three further nights Kairaba Hotel
➕ Day 5 UP-RIVER TO JANJANBUREH
Turning our backs on the coast today, we travel upriver to our next lodgings, at Janjanbureh. The journey, which is mostly by road, will take us through areas of savanna and wetlands, brimming with local and migrant birdlife.
An early morning ferry crossing to the north bank of the Gambia River, via the jostling port of Banjul, gets us underway. From the boat, we may be lucky to pick out wintering Arctic and Pomarine Skuas. As we leave the lusher lower reaches of the Gambia River behind, villages become fewer and birds more typical of Africas dry savanna belt start to appear. Chunky Bruces Green Pigeons feed in the large fig trees, with Temminck's Coursers, Anteater Chats, Grasshopper Buzzards and the aptly-named Pygmy Sunbird typical of the more open areas of groundnut fields dotted with isolated trees.
In contrast to the south shore, the countryside on the northern side of the Gambia River is drier and more sparsely vegetated. From time to time, however, we may come across clusters of waterholes - a magnet to tiny Namaqua Doves, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks and busy parties of bishops, weavers and finches, including Red-billed Quelea, Bush Petronia and the striking Sudan Golden Sparrow. Old laterite pits can also be extremely attractive to birds and recently we have been able to find Green-winged Pytilia (with its brood-parasite, Sahel Paradise Whydah in close attendance), Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin and Spotted Thick-knee at such places. As we pass by areas of seasonal flooding we will pause to check for Kittlitzs Plover and an array of other waterbirds that can sometimes include spectacular numbers of Collared Pratincoles.
Our travels today conclude with another short ferry crossing and arrival this evening at Janjanbureh (formerly known as Georgetown), where Baobolong Camp will be our base for a three-night stay. There are no traditional hotels upriver in Gambia and accommodation here is in permanent, individual thatched huts of rustic design. Theyre simple but perfectly adequate for our short stay here - and the best available! Each guest room is equipped with a fan (air-conditioning is not available upriver) and has its own basic amenities (cold water shower and WC). The camp is run by local people, who extend a warm Gambian welcome and are ever willing to oblige. Night Baobolong Camp, Janjanbureh
[Please note: depending on ferries and road conditions at the time of our visit, we may sometimes elect to travel instead along the south bank of the Gambia River and/or cross higher up. As a result, our birding stops along the way may be different to those outlined above, but equally rewarding with much the same species to look out for.]
➕ Days 6-7 UPPER RIVER REGION & GAMBIA RIVER BOAT TRIP
If we havent bumped into them already, the ultimate goal in our Quest for the Crocodile Bird will be the exquisite Egyptian Plover. But there will be lots of other excitement in store upriver. Well check a regular spot for the dazzling Northern Carmine Bee-eater, while a small quarry is home to Grey-headed Kingfisher, the recently split Goslings Bunting and a colony of superb Red-throated Bee-eaters. White-rumped Swifts are apt to appear from nowhere overhead - only to disappear again just as quickly. Waterholes upriver attract good numbers of thirsty passerines, including Village Indigobird, Black-rumped Waxbill and the surprising Cut-throat Finch.
This far inland, the river takes on a different character. Gone are the extensive mangroves of the lower river region, to be replaced with a lush tangle of freshwater vegetation. On one of our days here we will take a leisurely boat trip, enjoying lunch cooked on board, marvelling at the seemingly endless colonies of Yellow-backed Weaver nests, and presided over by stately African Fish Eagles. Western Banded Snake Eagle, Ruppells Vulture and Grey Kestrel can all be found along the upper river.
Although large mammals are scarce in Gambia, we have a reasonably good chance of happening upon a Hippopotamus or two as we scan the overhanging riverside tangles for a glimpse of the elusive and sought-after African Finfoot. Two further nights at Baobolong, Janjanbureh
➕ Day 8 WEST TO TENDABA
It will be with some reluctance that we leave Gambia's upper river region today and begin our journey back towards the coast.
Driving west along the south shore of the upper Gambia River well make various stops, perhaps checking the large Baobab trees for colonies of Marabou Storks, and also spending some time at Jakhaly, where the extensive rice fields attract good numbers of waders and waterfowl. African Pygmy and Spur-winged Geese, Comb Duck and Greater Painted-snipe are often about, as well as Black Coucal. Further areas of wetlands and reedbeds hold Yellow-crowned Bishops, Greater Swamp Warblers and Winding Cisticolas.
Our destination this evening is Tendaba Camp, where we stay for two nights. As we draw near, we will get our first indication of the wide range of savanna birds to be found - perhaps a well-balanced Bateleur patrolling for snakes or the extraordinary Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, which lays its eggs in the nest of the Red-winged Pytilia. As we approach our camp towards dusk we may be lucky to spot a Long-tailed Nightjar on the track.
Nestling on the south bank of the Gambia River, more than 100 km upstream from Banjul at its mouth, Tendaba provides the only tourist accommodation in Gambias middle river region. Facilities at the camp are rustic but comfortable, clean and again perfectly adequate for our brief visit here. Night Tendaba Camp
➕ Day 9 MIDDLE RIVER REGION: TENDABA CREEK-CRAWL & SAVANNA
We'll spend some time this morning exploring the lightly wooded countryside around about Tendaba, looking for such tropical gems as Black Scimitarbill, Levaillants Cuckoo, Purple Roller, Fine-spotted and Cardinal Woodpeckers, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weavers, Brown-rumped Bunting (a dull name for a great bird!), White-fronted Black Chat and White-shouldered Black Tit. The glossy-black Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike is also possible and we could see the dashing African Hobby overhead.
Returning to the river, we have an opportunity to watch for an array of herons and terns, which fish here on a rising tide.
Tides permitting, after lunch this afternoon we will take the opportunity to enjoy the first of two creek-crawls on the river at Tendaba (or if the tides are not in our favour, we may take the 'creek crawl' this morning instead).
Slowly wending our way by motorised pirogue through an alternating labyrinth of deep shade and shafts of sunlight, our cruise through the mangrove forests that fringe the Gambia River offers a truly memorable experience. Its a distinctly African adventure that should reward us with close encounters of many riparian species: pint-sized Striated Herons dwarfed by imposing Goliath Herons; Woolly-necked Storks, African Darters and Hamerkops perched on overhanging branches; and elegant Blue-cheeked and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters swooping low over Blue-breasted Kingfishers and African Blue Flycatchers. Tiny Mouse-brown Sunbirds will test our patience as they flit furtively about the tangled stems, where we might also be lucky to come across the secretive White-backed Night Heron, occurring here at one of its few Gambian breeding locations. Night Tendaba Camp
➕ Day 10 TENDABA 'CREEK CRAWL' & RETURN TO THE COAST
We will enjoy the second of our two Tendaba creek crawls this morning, before returning to camp and loading our bags into the bus. Later, we set off west on our return to the coast, where we shall spend the final two nights of the tour.
Keeping a sharp eye open for birds of prey such as White-backed and Ruppells Vultures, or even the immense Martial Eagle - the biggest of Africas eagles - well make a number of stops along the route. New species this afternoon could include Yellow Penduline Tit, African Yellow White-eye and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird. Or if yellow is not your colour, then we might find Brubru, Senegal Batis and the scarce Northern White-faced Owl.
Arriving back at the coast in the late afternoon, well enjoy our dinner on familiar territory this evening - at the lovely Kairaba Hotel. Night Kairaba Hotel
➕ Day 11 COASTAL GAMBIA: KARTONG & BOAT TRIP ON THE ALLAHEIN RIVER
Our birding at the coast picks up where we left off earlier in the tour and we round off our final full day in Gambia with a visit to one of the country's up and coming new birding spots - the freshwater pools, coastal scrub and bird ringing station at Kartong.
Taking a picnic breakfast with us from the hotel, we make an early start for Kartong, an area of former sand pits, where the birding is reckoned to be amongst the finest anywhere in the country. Early morning here offers the best chance of seeing the likes of Allens Gallinule and Purple Swamphen, Comb Duck and Dwarf Bittern. Black Crakes and White-faced Whistling-ducks are generally easy to see and Kartong can be an excellent spot to find the beautiful Greater Painted-snipe in November.
Later, we will take a leisurely boat trip along the Allahein River, where mighty Goliath Herons and brilliant Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters feed, and we may be lucky to see the local pair of iconic African Fish Eagles.
Thanks to the presence of a newly established bird observatory and ringing station here, Kartong has a happy knack of regularly turning up species that can be difficult to find elsewhere in Gambia - and a surprise is always on the cards! We will enjoy lunch locally and may be lucky to see one or two species in the hand, courtesy of the bird ringers. Night Kairaba Hotel
➕ Day 12 MORNING BIRDING LOCALLY (OR AT LEISURE AT THE HOTEL), FLY LONDON
For those that wish, there should be time this morning to enjoy some final birding, perhaps with a short trip out to Tanji in search of a last few birds that we may have missed so far. While those who prefer a quieter end to the holiday may opt instead for a leisurely last look about the grounds of our hotel - or simply to relax beside the hotels inviting pool.
We take an early lunch at an excellent local restaurant before transferring to the airport this afternoon. Check-in for our return flight to London Gatwick, where our November birding tour to Gambia concludes this evening.