Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Gambia

The Gambia is Africa's smallest country, a thin strip of land entirely surrounded by Senegal. In November I led an Ornitholidays group of ten keen birders there. We had a week on the coast, then a week inland. On one of our journeys, these three Black Crowned Cranes flew over us. November is just after the rainy season has finished, so the countryside is still green - and most species are still in breeding plumage. 

Three families of brightly coloured birds seem to be everywhere: kingfishers, bee-eaters and rollers. Here is a Blue-breasted Kingfisher, a blackbird-sized bird which can often be found in woodland away from water. Many African kingfishers have a diet of reptiles and insects rather than fish. While most of the Gambian kingfishers are widely distributed throughout Africa, this one is confined to West Africa. We saw eight kingfisher species, from the tiny Pygmy to the great Giant. (Of the world's kingfishers, the Giant is the largest, though the Laughing Kookaburra of Australia is marginally heavier). 

Of the seven bee-eater species we came across, the most spectacular was this Northern Carmine Bee-eater. To see this in The Gambia, you have to travel a long way inland, along the Gambia River. We came across a few of them close to the town of Janjangbureh, which is still often referred to by its old colonial name Georgetown. This individual was very faithful to this dead-tree perch, allowing the photographers many opportunities. In the background to the right of the bee-eater, is an out-of-focus Grey-headed Sparrow. 

Of the four roller species which are common in The Gambia, the one that drew the loudest gasps when first spotted was the Abyssinian Roller. These elegant birds have a chestnut-coloured back to complement the pale blue body and purple shoulders. In fact its plumage is remarkably similar to the European Roller, with the addition of the tail streamers. Rollers feed mostly on large insects such as beetles and grasshoppers, and are usually to be found in open scrubby country: a habitat that is being increasingly turned into farmland. Hence most roller species are declining. The name comes from the rolling display flight performed by many species. Rollers are among the world's worst songsters, uttering harsh cackling, grating, growling and screeching notes!

Widespread in wetlands and gardens, the Yellow-crowned Gonolek is a species of bush-shrike. Much more often heard than seen, it does emerge from thick cover sometimes (as here, in the garden of our coastal hotel). The African bush-shrikes are a diverse and usually brightly coloured family, that includes the Brubru and the boubous, and the South African Bokmakierie (which are all named after their calls). 

The Piapiac is in the crow family, and often known as 'black magpie' by the locals. This photo illustrates adult and young - surprisingly it is the juvenile with the red bill. This is a bird of open country, which can often be seen in gardens, peanut fields or around livestock. This is yet another bird name supposedly derived from its voice. During the trip, I concentrated mostly on binoculars and telescope, leaving the photography to others in the group. Many thanks to Roger Christopher, John Sykes and Roger Ackroyd for the above images. This brief look at some of The Gambia's more eye-catching birds doesn't begin to do justice to the biodiversity of the place: in my next post I'll cover a few of The Gambia's wetland species. 

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