Basse Santu Su and area
A brief glance around the car-park as we waited for the gang to assemble and we saw Bruce's Green Pigeon, Grey Plantain-eater, Shikra, Yellow-throated Leaflove and Senegal Parrot. Today we were heading even further upriver to the area of Basse Santa Su. First we had to get across the river again to the road on the south bank. This was achieved using a ferry with a duff engine. There was a metal cable running across the river. We were told men to one side, women to the other. Perhaps for some religious reason we thought but no – it was to allow the men to pull the ferry across the river using the metal cable! Saves fuel I guess.
First birding stop was yet another famous site – Bansang Quarry. Most people know this is THE place to come to see the breeding colony of Red-throated Bee-eaters. Most surprisingly, some tour companies do not come this far east to seek these birds! So, 50+ Red-throated Bee-eaters. Before going there I wasn't too enamoured with these birds even having seen them on video. In real life they are stunning birds. Worth every second of the long journey to see. Bansang had some water puddles in it too which attracted Bush Petronias, Yellow-fronted Canaries, Black-rumped Waxbills and Grey-headed Sparrows. New for the trip was a single Red-billed Quelea, non-breeding plumage but with a nice, obvious red bill. A Dark-chanting Goshawk sat in a nearby tree and a Shikra sat on the quarry edge, eyeing up the smaller birds. A fine Mottled Spinetail flew across the quarry face looking lordly amongst the Little Swifts.
What could follow the Red-throated Bee-eaters? We headed further east, to a site just past Basse, to find out. The bus seemed capable of driving along any track and did so to get to some fields. We did have to make a sudden stop when a nice Grey-headed Kingfisher was spotted in a bush by the track.
We disembarked and walked along a mud ridge and down onto some fields. Would the birds still be here or had they moved on? Solomon had only found two recently and they were distant. Then the magic began again – one, then two, then three and eventually five Northern Carmine Bee-eaters flew over, hawked, sat in bushes and generally showed fantastically. Both Northern Carmine and Red-throated Bee-eaters in one morning – a genuine highlight of the trip. We are stunned that some tours do not make the effort to go this far east to see these birds.
Quailfinches put in their usual fly-past views and we found another two Red-throated Bee-eaters, a nice Speckled Pigeon and three Abyssinian Rollers, then we headed off for an early break (rather an unusual circumstance and one worth mentioning!) and lunch. We found ourselves sitting on a cool balcony overlooking the Gambia River and the crossing at Basse. Basse used to be the place people came to to see Egyptian Plover and sure enough two pairs of the birds were present on the far bank. One pair actually flew across the river and landed on the jetty – that's where this picture was taken. It was much easier to get close to these birds than the ones at Kau-ur. Birds were seen well both on land and in flight, and they are pretty spectacular in flight.
A flower-covered bush below the balcony held a pair of Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, a male Beautiful Sunbird and a pair of Red-billed Firefinches. A gap in the bushes allowed us to view a small open area which held Bush Petronia and Grey-backed Camaroptera whilst, overhead, we admired soaring Hooded Vultures, Black Kites and Little Swifts. The Little Swifts appeared to be nesting just below us and close fly-bys were happening all the time. The combination of the balcony, sun, view, cool drinks, good food and birds was superb.
Still, this laziness and indolence had to come to an end and soon it was time to hit the road again, head back to Georgetown, pull ourselves back across the river and do some birding around Bird Safari Camp. We had a couple of decent birds on the drive back – two Collared Pratincoles near the river and a juvenille Brown Snake-eagle perched in a tree near the camp.
Our late afternoon walk around the camp's savannah woodland started with two Senegal Parrots (almost always seen in pairs wherever we were) plus Western Grey Plantain-eaters, Broad-billed Rollers and Yellow-crowned Gonoleks. A Pearl-spotted Owlet was spotted high in a tree, an African Paradise Flycatcher put in an appearance and looking towards the unseen river we found another African Fish Eagle. It was about time we had a new bird and sure enough one was found – a female Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike – another bird that looks far better in real life than in the books. As we all sought and found the bird, which was feeding high in a tree, the male was also found. The male was the orange-shouldered variant rather than the classic red-shouldered and, as intimated earlier, was not as good looking as the female (at least in our opinion!).
As ever, we knew there were more birds to find and soon came across yet another Grey Kestrel and a confiding Cardinal Woodpecker. More-common birds were also present including Yellow-billed Shrike, Vinaceous and Red-eyed Doves, and Stone Partridges could be heard. A sudden stop was necessitated when Solomon (again!) spotted a good bird – a visible Stone Partridge which everyone could now catch up on, once they'd worked out that it was only visible from a very limited area! As we admired this bird a rather distant flock of 29 Four-banded Sandgrouse flew past and a flock of starlings arrived to feed in nearby bushes sticking up from the surrounding grassland. Naturally we had to check each bird just in case and Helen found the one we'd been looking for – a single Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling amongst the Greater Blue-eareds.
So, some great birds. Would there be more to come? Yup. Next we found Bruce's Green Pigeon, always a nice bird to see, then Pete B found a small bird in a tree which he said was very yellow. But where had it gone? The tree was close and not tall, some leaves and no obvious bird. Pete's description hinted at another new species so we got a bit worried! Then it was refound and some of us shouted 'Pygmy Sunbird, male Pygmy Sunbird'. Yet another ace bird to get. Our almost final birds had all been seen before but it's nice to see Bronze-tailed Glossy Starlings, Village Indigobirds and a Lizard Buzzard. One more bird to get. A short walk took us to a wetland area and, as the sun descended to the horizon and it was close to dark birds started flying in, calling and circling nervously before landing at the edge of a pool close to the edge of the path. We had seen them earlier but the views now were much better – the birds were Four-banded Sandgrouse and were seen very well in the torch light.
After dinner we found that the birding day had not yet ended! As you can imagine, it was dark outside so we thought 'owls'. The night we arrived we heard African Scops Owls all over the place and all night. Tonight, nothing! Hmmm. A tad worrying but Birdfinders are not to be deterred by a small thing like the apparent lack of birds – we would find them! So, there we stood, a warm evening in a woodland in Africa, in silence. Vaughan was, as usual, very well equipped: this time with his mega-powerful torch and a tape recording of African Scops Owl. The tape was there as a back up in case the birds were distant or hiding and we didn't want to overuse it and disturb them. A burst of scops owl song and we soon had a reply. It was not long before there were four birds in the area – however, finding them was a different matter to hearing them! Cue the torch. Directing someone to a bird in a tree in daylight can be a challenge; at night it is worse, even with the aid of a torch and comments like 'follow the light'! Eventually all saw the birds well and retired to bed well satisfied.
Our second morning up river and we were to leave Bird Safari Camp and head along the more civilised south bank road back to the coast. However, first we had to do another check of the woods for a final target bird. The sun was up but we still heard African Scops Owl plus the distinctive call of Stone Partridges. Common Bulbul and three Brown Babblers were found and then three Broad-billed Rollers flying around and perching on top of trees. So, to our target birds. Solomon had local information and we were soon beneath a huge tree searching the branches. Solomon found the birds – Verreaux's Eagle-owls. One bird flew but the other stayed put, at least for a while. After a few minutes the other bird flew to join the first in the crown of a not-too-distant palm tree. All saw the birds well, some even saw the famous pink eyelids as the birds stared at us and occasionally blinked.
We were not leaving yet – it was now down to the riverside to board a boat. The boat warrants some description: it had two decks, the lower with seating and the upper open to the sky with standing only. The obvious place to bird from was the top deck so we started to climb onboard onto that deck. This was when we realised the design of the boat was one we weren't expecting – it had a flat bottom to avoid becoming trapped on sandbanks. This means it is rather unstable and as we crowded the top deck the boat started to tilt, not gently but quite quickly! Hurried instructions to get to the lower deck were followed with alacrity! Even on the lower deck, with people distributed both sides, we were advised to not dive to one side when a bird was spotted as we'd end out in the river!
This instruction was put to the test when a flock of 10 Comb Ducks flew past but everyone saw the birds. A Grey Kestrel sat in a riverside tree near to some African Mourning Doves and, as we gently cruised up the south bank of the river, we heard Oriole Warbler and Common Wattle-eye. Time for yet another new bird – not a good-looker but new in the form of Swamp Flycatcher. We saw a few of these during the journey. Bruce's Green Pigeons were again seen as were three Yellow-throated Leafloves, Osprey, African Harrier-hawk, Long-tailed Cormorant and Pied Kingfisher.
The boat moved back across the river to the north bank and we soon had Blue-breasted Kingfishers (four in total) and Squacco Herons on the day list. I was scanning ahead and shouted that we were coming up to a Red-necked Falcon perched on a tree. The boat wobbled but did not tip as people positioned themselves for the bird which was seen very well by all – in fact we saw three! Then we had a close juvenille African Fish Eagle and a flying adult, Violet Turaco and a flock of six Spur-winged Geese flying past. Spur-winged Geese numbers increased when we found a distant tree, which we eventually got closer to, containing at least 20 individuals. Yellow-crowned Gonolek was seen, 13 White-faced Whistling-ducks flew past and we found our second Grey-headed Kingfisher.
The trees were thinning out and grassland, cultivation and riverside bushes formed the habitat at our sides. I found a cuckoo species in one of these trees and shouted 'there's a cuckoo in that bush' which necessitated the boat doing a slow turn so we could go back and check out the bird. Well worth the effort since it was an adult Dideric Cuckoo.
The muddy banks held African Wattled Plovers, Senegal Thick-knees, and a Striated Heron whilst bushes added two Bearded Barbets and Abyssinian Roller. As we approached the landing jetty Solomon said he could hear a Grey-headed Bush-shrike. We heard it too and another calling to it from the other side of the river. This would be a top bird if we could find it!
Disembarkation was followed by all of us semi-surrounding a large leaf-covered tree where we believed the bush-shrike to be. Of course, it was right at the top and invisible but could be clearly heard. Aki walked to the other side of the tree and, in an impressive piece of spotting, found the bird showing through an almost circular gap in the leaves. What a bird! Seen brilliantly in the 'scopes it was a highlight of the trip.
Next stop was Jahaly Ricefields. As we arrived we screeched to a halt to check out a large raptor in a nearby dead-looking tree. It was obviously one of the snake-eagles but which one? After a few minutes of intensive observation, and of photographers trying to creep closer, it flew and Solomon and I both shouted 'It's a Beaudouin's'. The bird flew away and then circled back and over our heads.
On to the ricefields proper. There was quite a lot of water here and marsh birds were in evidence: at least 10 Squacco Herons were seen, over 100 (and there must have been many more) African Jacanas, Western Marsh-harrier, Cattle Egret, Purple, Grey and Black-headed Herons. A singing Winding Cisticola was found, which showed well to all but we were too late in the season for the hoped-for but very scarce Black Coucal. We did pick up two African Silverbills and four Cut-throats.
After a short drive to a nearby village we were soon watching a colony of Marabou Storks. Everyone says these birds are ugly and they are correct. Still, it was a new bird. At the same place a lone Rüppell's Griffon-vulture circled with Hooded Vultures and two Red-necked Falcons sat in a palm tree.
Our next stop was Sinchu Gundo Lower Basic School which is always visited by the Birdfinders' tours to drop off school equipment brought by the participants. We took pens, pencils (lead and coloured), notepads, rulers, educational posters and, brought by Satomi and Aki, some brightly-coloured plastic recorders (of the flute variety). The headmaster said the thing they most need is pencils and paper because although the government supplies the teachers they do not supply any equipment. The excitement of the younger children was something to see and they all wanted to touch us to see if we felt the same as them! Also here we had our first African Hawk Eagle.
Our final stop of the day was a place called Batelling Track where we saw Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and our target bird White-fronted Black-chat, a bird which kindly sat up on a branch so we could admire its white front.
The sun might have gone down by now and the birds gone to roost but the excitement wasn't yet over. As we rushed down the road, occasionally bouncing around as we hit a hole or two, we heard a huge bang. Had we hit something or had a tyre burst? We were still moving so the latter seemed unlikely. However, our concern meant the driver had to stop (he didn't do so until we requested it) and we examined the tyres. At the back of the bus are double wheels, one inside tyre had shredded and was throwing steel-strengthened rubber against the bottom of the bus. The driver shrugged in a Gambian way and showed no concern at all. So we carried on in the dark with, every now and then, a loud crash as a bit more tyre departed it's usual spot and bounced off the undertray and off into the distance.
Another highlight was our hunt for diesel fuel. We were low again and needed a fill-up. In a village Solomon spoke to a man. None was to be found at garages but the man's kids got on the bus and we drove to another part of town. Here we stopped by an unexceptional house which, we later were told, held a large amount of diesel. Solomon did the business and large plastic containers of fuel were loaded onto the bus roof. The smell of diesel was noted but we were too tired to worry about that now! Besides, diesel meant we would make it back and not be trapped somewhere in the middle of The Gambia. After such a long day the hotel was eagerly anticipated and seemed pure luxury when we made it back.