Running eastwards from the Atlantic Ocean, sunny Gambia is a slender finger of land seldom more than 40km across. But birdwatchers have quickly recognised that what this tiny West African republic lacks in size, it more than makes up for in sheer variety and wealth of birds. In fact, we only have to step into the grounds of our comfortable beachside hotel to be immersed in a world of Senegal Parrots, Western Red-billed Hornbills, White-crowned Robin-chats, Beautiful Sunbirds and Blackcap Babblers - species as exotic in appearance as they sound. And all within six hours flying time of home!
Birds are abundant everywhere in Gambia and we shall not only encounter a host of vibrant West African residents but have the pleasure of seeing many of our ‘own’ familiar summer migrants - here in their warm winter quarters. Among them Melodious, Subalpine and Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Woodchat Shrike, Whinchat and perhaps a Common Nightingale lurking in the undergrowth.
During our week in Gambia we will choose our programme from the wealth of top birding sites within the country's coastal 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; watch for Hamerkops, Giant Kingfishers, African Jacanas and snake-necked African Darters on secluded pools; and listen for Oriole Warbler, Brown-throated Wattle-eye and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher in areas of lush tropical canopy. As Green Monkeys and Western Red Colobus crash away through the treetops, a flurry of bright crimson wings might betray the presence of gorgeous Violet and Guinea Turacos.
Adding to the fun are the Gambia’s wetlands - coastal mangroves, marshes and tidal creeks - alive with birds and all within easy range of our comfortable hotel, with its inviting swimming pool and palm-fringed sandy beach. Amusing Black Egrets demonstrate their seemingly bizarre ‘umbrella’ feeding action alongside the larger and less eccentric Western Reef Egrets; Pied Kingfishers hover above the water like animated crossword puzzles and crowds of wintering waders are dwarfed by groups of enormous Pink-backed Pelicans.
A visit to the bird observatory and wetlands at Kartong - which lies at the southernmost tip of the country, close to the border with Senegal - completes our trip. Kartong may be one of Gambia's 'newest' birding locations, but the area is reckoned to be amongst the best anywhere in the country. Our day here should produce some very good birds, with African Swamphens lurking in the pools, migratory Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hawking overhead and a chance of White-fronted Plovers on the beach. The ringing station regularly turns up a few surprises - our February 2017 group enjoyed two Cuckoo-finches, a vagrant to Gambia and part of an unprecedented incursion into the region by this peculiar species.
It's also at Kartong that we will enjoy a restful afternoon boat trip. As we travel by motorised pirogue along the Allahein River, the fringing mangroves and tidal flats might reward us with anything from the iconic African Fish Eagle or Goliath Heron to parties of Slender-billed Gulls and African Spoonbills. It's the kind of magical experience that makes our birding tours to Gambia so special.
Limosa has been operating bird tours to Gambia since 1994 and we have now run almost 50 trips there. Guide Gary Elton first visited Gambia for us in 2009 and our February 2018 holiday will be his 11th tour there for Limosa. Joining him as usual is our resident Gambian bird guide, Dembo Sonko, who now has more than a decade of experience guiding Limosa’s Gambia tours.