Sunday 17 February 2019

Update from Shawell

It's been interesting so far at Shawell this winter - good numbers of gulls and surprisingly good numbers of birders. As most of you know, I have been studying the gulls at the site for many years, but this is the first time for quite a while that new birders have been attracted to the site. Mostly year listers, but hopefully a few will develop an interest in gulls.

Before I mention the gulls, I need to say that if you do visit the site please view the flooded sandpit from the public footpath and park sensibly - there is only very limited parking.

Of course the attraction for most is the 'white-wingers'. Iceland Gulls unlike last year have been in fairly short supply with just two seen, however, eight mighty Glaucs have graced the sandpit so far this winter.

The spectacle of thousands of gulls taking to the air when a falcon or buzzard comes into range is quite spectacular. At times there can be up to 20,000 gulls on site. One thing that escapes the attention of most of the visiting birders is the colour-rings fitted to many of the gulls. Try having a closer look at their legs 😉

 During winter Lesser Black-backed Gulls give way to Herring Gulls as many migrate south, but yesterday there was a sign that the Lesser Black-backed Gulls are on the way back. I read the colour-ring on one Lesser Black-backed Gull that has passed through the site every year since 2013 - 1D9B was ringed in Cambridgeshire originally.

Below are the two 'white-wingers' I saw yesterday:

Juvenile Glaucous Gull (first seen on January 14th)

Juvenile Glaucous Gull (same as the one above, first seen on January 14th)

Adult Iceland Gull

Friday 1 February 2019

The Gambia

Tuesday 15th January, travel day:

I have just returned from The Gambia where we enjoyed two fabulous weeks. Dawn and I talked about doing a trip there about 28 years ago and then came along our two children. Well there was nothing to stop us this time and so after being told by Pete Asher of an ideal place to stay we booked. Farakunku Lodges are perfect for birders. Not only are you really well looked after but it is also an excellent location for birding. We flew with Thomas Cook from Birmingham, which made things very simple. At Banjul Airport (don't forget to put a few pound coins in your pocket for tips) we were met by Moses who manages Farakunku lodges along with his wife Heather. The journey to Farakunku proved entertaining, the locals seem to just pull off from the side of the road without looking. It gets quite interesting when you add all the people and animals in to the mix. Anyway we survived and we were soon being greeted by the happy smiling faces of the staff of Farakunku.

It didn't take long to settle in and extract the binoculars from my bag. The tree above our lodge was fruiting and the birds were taking full advantage. Some Western Grey Plantain Eaters were busy feeding and a surprise Bearded Barbet was also feeding quietly at the top of the tree. Violet Turacos were creeping about high in the tree and some African Green Pigeons showed well.

Dawn and I set off on a walk around the local area. We were greeted by many friendly smiles and asked how we were by everyone. Yellow-billed Shrikes hid in the shade and Little Bee-eaters fed at the side of the paths. In all we saw 23 new lifers in a few hours.

African Green Pigeon

Wednesday 16th January, rest day:

A rest day had been planned for our first full day, but I don't do rest days on holiday. We took on a way marked walk in the morning and went to the coast in the afternoon. Highlights during the morning included  African Golden Oriole, African Palm Swift, African Wattled Lapwing, Beautiful Sunbird, Double-spurred Francolin, Little Swift, Blue-bellied Roller, Senegal Coucal, Senegal Parrots, Shikra and Western Red-billed Hornbill.

Senegal Coucal

Just a short drive/walk down the road is a superb area of pools, sand dunes and seashore. The pools were full of water on this first visit, but only a few days later much of the water had evaporated. The first pool held African Jacana, Caspian Tern, Hamerkop, Sacred Ibis, Senegal Thick-Knee and Spur-winged Plovers plus many more.

Spur-winged Plover
African Jacana
White-faced Whistling Duck

White-faced Whistling Ducks

A scruffy looking Pink-backed Pelican flew in, but just as it did Dawn spotted a Malachite Kingfisher, which stole the show. By the beach a couple of Palm Nut Vultures were resting in a tree until we accidentally disturbed them and a Beaudouin's Snale Eagle hunted the dune area.

Palm Nut Vulture
Beaudouin's Snake Eagle

Where are all the sun worshippers?

Thursday 17th January, Abuko nature reserve and then Lamin rice fields:

We collected our guide Lamin K Njie on the way to Abuko. The reserve is mainly forested with a small lake near what is called the Darwin Observatory. A large hide overlooks the lake. An African darter appeared from nowhere with a fish, as did an official with a donation form. We were sucked into giving a donation, but I can't help wondering why he looked better fed and groomed than almost anyone else we saw during our trip?

Abuko Nature Reserve

African Darter

Squacco Heron

Entering the forest we were treated to some smart birds including African Pied Hornbill, Black Crake, Green Turaco and Yellow-breasted Apalis. However, Common Wattle-eye was my favourite. I only managed a photo of an immature one.

Immature Common Wattle-eye

Lunchtime was spent at a rickety wooden restaurant overlooking a mangrove swamp. Whilst eating, our first Pied Kingfisher of the trip flew past as did a Namaqua Dove. After lunch we headed to Lamin rice fields where the highlights included four Bearded Barbets, Black Egrets, Green-backed Heron, Painted Snipe and a very showy Pied Kingfisher. A gathering of Hooded Vultures was also impressive.

Pied Kingfisher

Hooded Vulture

Friday 18th January, Brufut Woods and Tanji Reserve.

At Brufut Woods we saw our first Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, which were one of my favourite birds of the trip.  Also a pair of Red-necked Falcons dashed about and a Western Violet Backed Sunbird dazzled us. The main target species were Northern White-faced Owl and Long-tailed Nightjar. We saw both well due to local knowledge provided by a young chap based at the site. Sadly two days later we learnt of his sudden and unexpected death. He had been guiding more birders on the day he passed away.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Long-tailed Nightjar

At Tanji Reserve, we enjoyed more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and our first Yellow-crowned Gonoleks. The star bird was a Vieillot's Barbet. Royal and Caspian Terns were gathered on an island in a lagoon close to the sea, but he direction of the sun made photography hard work.

Vieillot's Barbet

Saturday 19th, Tanji Beach and reserve:

Saturday was scheduled to be a rest day, but I arranged a lift to Tanji village with the intention of finding and photographing a Kelp Gull. Tanji is a fishing village and a really busy place. The fish are landed on the beach, so there should be lots of gulls there. The gulls, however, where not aware of the itinerary and could be seen distantly on an offshore island - Bijol Island. At first I entertained myself photographing the terns and Grey-headed Gulls.

Royal and Caspian Terns

Royal Terns

Lesser Crested Tern

Caspian Terns

Grey-headed Gull
Tanji Beach

With no large gulls on the beach I decided to have a walk about. A group of Red-chested Swallows posed nicely close to the village as did a Black-shouldered Kite.

Red-chested Swallows
Black-shouldered Kite

I returned to the beach in the afternoon and eventually I spotted my quarry resting on the sea about 100 metres out. Luckily it flew to the beach and fed on a discarded fish. What a gull, big and proud.

Adult Kelp Gull

Sunday 20th January, Bonto Woods and Farasutu:

Back with Lamin and it was owl day, but first we tried a site for Brown-necked Parrot. Apparently they are a bit  hit or miss, but luckily it was a hit for us. A noisy group appeared and settled in the tree above us.

Brown-necked Parrots

Brown-necked Parrot

We also saw Pearl-spotted Owlet and Long-crested Eagle. Lamin heard the eagle calling and we eventually we spotted it sitting in a tall palm. An African Paradise Flycatcher charmed us as it flitted about in a tall tree.

We moved on to Bonto Woods where we were searching for the first of the days owls. As we walked through the woods the local guide spotted not one but three species of honeyguide and all in the same place - Spotted, Lesser and Greater Honeyguides. Photography was difficult under the dense canopy but I was happy to get a record shot of the Spotted Honeyguide.

Spotted Honeyguide

High in a large tree we were shown an adult Verreaux's Eagle Owl and its well grown chick. They obviously nest/roost in that tree regularly, as the track ended right in front of the tree.

Verreaux's Eagle Owl

Our next location proved to be an excellent site. We lunched in a clearing where water had been provided for the birds. On this trip we had been doing very well with getting good views of the supposedly difficult Green Turacos and another one appeared and took a long drink from the water container.

Green Turaco

After lunch the owls came fast. First African Wood Owl followed by Northern White-faced and Greyish Eagle Owl.

African Wood Owl
Greyish Eagle Owl

Having already seen a small crocodile I was excited to see a larger one. It seemed less happy to see us though. A White-backed Night Heron was roosting by the Crocodile pool.


The next treat was being shown a roosting pair of roosting Standard-winged Nightjars.

Male Standard-winged Nightjar

Female Standard-winged Nightjar

There was one final high point that day when, just as we were about to climb back in the vehicle, a pair of Klaas's Cuckoos appeared.

Klaas's Cuckoo

Monday January 21st, rest day:

Dawn and I walked 12 miles today. We headed off to the beach first and we were surprised to see how much the pools had dried up in just a few days since our last visit. Dawn did well to spot a Greater Painted Snipe out in the open, bobbing like a sandpiper. We also spotted a Beaudouin's Snake Eagle that was carrying a snake in its beak. We then walked back towards Farakunku area and then headed off back towards the sea and explored the Tujerang Forest area.

The best birds seen were Abyssinian Roller and Temminck's Courser.

Abyssinian Roller
Temminck's Courser

An hour in the bird garden before dinner at Farakunku was a success with a Northern Black Flycatcher starring along with a Fine Spotted Woodpecker.

Northern Black Flycatcher
Fine Spotted Woodpecker

Tuesday 22nd January, Tujerang Forest and Kotu Bridge:

We were back with Lamin in an area we were familiar with, but Lamin's local knowledge presented us with good views of Black-headed Lapwing, Cardinal Woodpecker, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Stripped Kingfisher and White-fronted Black Chat .

Stripped Kingfisher
Black-headed Lapwing

During the afternoon we visited several more touristy areas including the well know Kotu Bridge. There were lots of bird guides and some would be guides in the area, but luckily we had our own guide so we weren't hassled in any way. Giant, Blue-breasted and Malachite Kingfishers were the main highlights.

Blue-breasted Kingfisher

Wednesday 23rd January, Darsilami and Marakissa:

These two locations proved good for birds of prey with the highlights including African Harrier Hawk, Brown's Snake Eagle, Booted Eagle, Gabor Goshawk, Lizard Buzzard, Tawny Eagle and Whalberg's Eagle.

Adult African Harrier Hawk

For me seeing an Oxpecker was a must as it one of the birds that is always showed on nature documentaries about African wildlife. I spotted a group riding on the back of a cow and got quite

Yellow-billed Oxpeckers

Thursday 24th January, rest day:

We had arranged a visit to an offshore island in the afternoon and had a nice walk in the morning.

During the walk we spotted a Rufous-crowned Roller which a nice addition to our trip list and a Grey Kestrel posed nicely.

Rufous-crowned Roller
Grey Kestrel

Bijol Island in a roosting site for large gulls including many Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Unfortunately much of the island has been washed away, so it was difficult not to scare the gulls.

Bijol Island
Kelp, Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls
Gulls on Bijol Island

Friday 25th January, Kartong:

Our last day was spent at Kartong, which is close to the Senagal border. The sort after species here is Northern Carmine Bee-eater and we were in luck.

Northern Carmine Bee-eater

Another bit of luck was finding a Four-banded Sandgrouse, which Lamin relocated after we accidentally flushed it at first.

Four-banded Sandgrouse

All we had to do in the afternoon was to find a Goliath Heron, but this proved quite tricky. Eventually we spotted one on the Senegal side of the river and luckily we were in a boat.

Goliath Heron

We had a really good time and can thoroughly recommend Farakunku as a destination for your own Gambia adventure - Farakunku

Our guide Lamin K Njie was excellent and he can be contacted personally or through Farakunku -

In all we saw 225 bird species and there is still much more to explore in The Gambia.