Off come the fleeces as we swap a cold grey English sky for a cloudless blue West African one, with numerous Black Kites and Pied Crows over Dakar.
After a good night’s sleep, our local guide Abdou, aka Carlos, joins us for breakfast, along with Common Bulbuls, and then we head north for Saint Louis and the Djoudj National Park, near the border with Mauritania. Just ten minutes into the journey, we make an emergency stop for a handsome Red-necked Falcon perched in a roadside tree, along with a Red-billed Hornbill, quickly followed by a couple of Western Grey Plaintain Eaters, which look as exotic as they sound. After an hour on the road, a stroll through some non-descript looking scrub produces a series of good birds in the top of the same bush; Black Scrub Robin, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, and Sahel Paradise Whydah, with an unfeasibly long flowing tail; All these on top of Grey Kestrel, Mottled Spinetail, Abyssinian Roller, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Grey-backed Camaroptera and Cut-throat Finch. A little further up the road, we find a bush with Rufous-crowned Roller, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow and Laughing Doves, and further on, Northern Anteater Chat and Chestnut-bellied Starling, but best stop of all is for a melee of about twenty Vultures feasting on a goat carcass just twenty yards from the road! In the chaotic squabble we pick out four different species; Eurasian and Rüppell’s Griffons, White-backed Vulture, and smaller Hooded Vultures, which are largely passive bystanders while the ‘big boys’ jostle for prime position like bouncing Kung Fu fighters. After lunch in Saint Louis, we stroll not far from town, finding a handful of Long-tailed Nightjars roosting on the dry sandy soil, as well as Woodchat Shrike, Mr and Mrs Senegal Batis and a group of lovely Green Bee-eaters. More new sightings follow at a nearby wetland including Western Reef Heron, Spur-winged Lapwing, Kittlitz’s Plover, Wood and Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stint, Senegal Coucal, blue-headed Yellow Wagtail, Black-crowned Tchagra, Black-headed Weaver and Village Indigobird. On the approach to the Djoudj National Park, the dry terrain of the Sahel is home to Speckled Pigeon, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and swarms of Red-billed Queleas, while the wet areas are alive with a variety of water birds such as African Darter, Long-tailed Cormorants, with eyes like rubies, Purple and Squacco Herons, Black-winged Stilt, Osprey, African Jacana, smart Grey-headed Gulls, Caspian Tern, Pied Kingfisher, and a couple of Yellow-billed Storks amongst a hundred or so Eurasian Spoonbills. At dusk, thousands of roosting White-faced Whistling Ducks noisily welcome us to the Djoudj Hotel. Not bad for a travelling day.
Soon after dawn, the whistling ducks are creating a deafening bedlam, and we find a Barn Owl roosting in one of the palm trees near the swimming pool. Not far from the hotel, Zebra Waxbills, as bright as mangos, show well in the tall reeds. The Djoudj National Park is a vast expanse of arid Tamarisk and Acacia scrub, reedbeds and lagoons, choc-full of water birds in staggering numbers including Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets, Purple, Grey and Squacco Herons, Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Greater Flamingos, Eurasian Spoonbills, with the odd red-faced African Spoonbill amongst them, and thousands of Garganey and Fulvous and White-faced Whistling Ducks, frequently making spectacular massive murmurations like Starlings back home. Other sightings include Yellow-billed and Black Storks, Spur-winged Goose, Marsh Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns, Subalpine Warbler, Zitting and Winding Cisticolas, thousands of Sand Martins and a couple of Black-crowned Cranes, while a Chiffchaff sings from the Acacias! We also enjoy good views of Warthogs, Golden Jackals, and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on the backs of Brahmin cows, and even get close views of the very scarce River Prinia! Red-chested Swallows are waiting back at the hotel, and after a dip in the pool and lunch we set off for a boat trip on the River Senegal, spotting Collared Pratincole, African Stonechat and our first African Fish Eagle on the way. From the boat, shadowed by an escort of Whiskered Terns, more Fish Eagles show along with one or two Ospreys and numerous Marsh Harriers. Dead branches along the river are festooned with Darters, Long-tailed Cormorants and much bigger Great Cormorants, with brilliant white breasts, despite being conspecific with our own dark-fronted race. Purple Swamphen, Sacred and Glossy Ibises, Black Tern, Little Bee-eater and deep blue Malachite Kingfishers also show well, but a colony of Great White Pelicans, grunting like hippos in their thousands, and with plenty of comings and goings right in front of the boat, steals the show. Back on the land, we find Black Crake, Senegal Thick-knee and even an Allen’s Gallinule, perched in a bush right beside the track!
Today is December 1st, and sunny and warm as usual, as we leave the fabulous Djoudj bird sanctuary, but not before checking out a small pool where we spot a total of seven Painted Snipe, looking absolutely superb with the morning light behind us. We also add Little Swift, Black Heron and Blue-naped Mousebird to the list here. Back in the dry scrub, we try again for Sparrow Larks, this time finding the target Black-crowned, as well as Chestnut-backed. We are now back on the long straight main road, heading northeast for the town of Richard Toll. Just beyond town is a nice area of Acacia woodland where excellent sightings include Black-shouldered Kite, Black-headed Lapwing, Namaqua Dove, Green Woodhoopoe, Vieillot’s Barbet, Senegal Eremomela, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Sudan Golden Sparrow, Red-billed Firefinch and Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, while a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls are stirring up the White-billed Buffalo Weavers by roosting in ‘their’ tree, which is heavily laden with their bulky colonial nests. After lunch in the Gite d’Etape, a second visit to the Acacia woods adds Grey-bellied Eremomela, Northern Crombec, Fork-tailed Drongo, Brubru, Greater Blue-eared Starling, African Silverbill, Redstart and Tree Pipit to the growing list. With less than an hour of good daylight left we make for the aerodrome on the edge of town. Cricket Warbler is our main target, but first we find Southern Grey Shrike and Fulvous Babbler, and then with just a few minutes to spare before the daylight starts to fade, we find the pretty little Cricket Warbler hopping around just a few yards in front of us! What a fantastic end to another tremendous day.
We still need the rare Little Grey Woodpecker and so return to the Acacia woods just north of town, quickly finding the larger Grey Woodpecker along with Vinaceous Dove, Striped Kingfisher, Western Orphean Warbler, African Grey Hornbill and Hoopoe, but it is almost two hours before we finally pinpoint a pair of Little Grey Woodpeckers. About the size of a ‘Lesser Spot’, both sexes are well spotted and with red rumps, but the male also has a red cap. Suddenly about twenty five Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse drop in to a wet patch just beyond the powder dry woods and so we stalk them for fantastic views as they slowly walk towards the puddle. After a quick drink they are off, while more descend in small groups, and so by the time they have all gone we must have seen more than sixty of these beautifully marked birds. Back at the aerodrome, seventy plus Stone Curlews, or Eurasian Thick-knees, take off as we arrive, leaving plenty more dotted about amongst the sparse bushes, and in one scope view we even find Eurasian, Senegal and Spotted Thick-knees side by side, as if on the same page of a fieldguide! A trio of Temminck’s Coursers are another excellent sighting here. After lunch in Saint Louis, we visit a small oasis, brimming with water birds in this largely barren land. In addition to Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Long-tailed Cormorant, Black Crake, Purple Swamphen, Allen’s Gallinule, African Jacana and Fish Eagle, we find a pair of African Pygmy Geese, smaller even than Teal!
Today we have a long drive south to Kaolack, and after about an hour, we come across another carcass being stripped by the same four species of Vultures, with the Eurasian Griffons again dominating the squabble. After a couple more hours on the largely empty road in this semi-desert landscape, passing through occasional towns with bustling markets selling livestock and fruit, where our speed comes to a virtual standstill as the driver paps and weaves through an assortment of donkey carts, people and livestock, a small waterhole is also bustling with life; There are hundreds of chattering Red-billed Queleas and Sudan Golden Sparrows as well as numerous Namaqua Doves, while large Mosque Swallows are swooping in for a quick drink. It’s 2pm by the time we arrive in Diourbel for lunch in a café which is very popular with the local flies! They serve a mean pepper sandwich here. Moving on, we run into a swarm of Lesser Kestrels and Swallow-tailed Kites snatching grasshoppers from the ground, which is alive with thousands of these insects. Also here is a pair of Abbysinian Rollers in the same bush as a Great Spotted Cuckoo, along with a Grey Kestrel posing on a nearby pylon. Journey’s end is the Hotel Relais de Kaolack, where a scan of the lagoon produces Slender-billed Gulls amongst the crowds of Grey-headed Gulls and Sandwich and Gull-billed Terns. Cheers Paul, happy birthday.
Today is another travelling day but first we have an appointment with the Swallow-tailed Kites on the edge of town, where we spend an hour watching the amazing spectacle of possibly up to two hundred of these elegant little raptors perched in just a couple of trees! We also find Black-headed Herons here. Heading due east, parallel with the northern border of The Gambia, we spot our first Piapiacs, a completely black long-tailed gregarious member of the crow family. Further east, a roadside pool is attracting birds like iron filings to a magnet. As lively flocks of Sudan Golden Sparrows and Red-billed Queleas dash to and fro to drink, we also pick out Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Village Indigobird, Cut-throat Finch, White-rumped Seedeater and Northern Red Bishop. Also present are seven members of the pigeon family; Mourning, Laughing, Vinaceous, Namaqua and Turtle Doves, plus Speckled Pigeons and a very nice Bruce’s Green Pigeon. While African Palm Swifts and Red-rumped Swallows swoop in for a drink, a Dark Chanting Goshawk is keeping a sharp eye on proceedings from a tree top perch. By mid-afternoon we are beyond the easternmost end of The Gambia where new birds along the roadside include Brown Snake Eagle, Yellow-billed Shrike, Blue-bellied Roller and a Grasshopper Buzzard, which drops from its perch to grab a large green grasshopper, which it dismembers back on its perch before tucking in to the hapless insect. Along the bumpy track through the forest to our ‘camp’ at Wassadou, a Stone Partridge crosses in front of us, and we are ‘home’ at last.
Wassadou Camp sits on a cliff overlooking a remote bend in the Gambia river, shaded by towering Kapok trees, a great place to sit back with a cold beer and watch the scene unfold; A Palm Nut Vulture sits in the riverside treetops along with very slim and attractive Red Colobus Monkeys. Northern Carmine Bee-eaters and Broad-billed Rollers are high fliers above camp, while Egyptian Plovers fly up and down stream just above the surface and Western Grey Plaintain Eaters cross from side to side with lazy Jay-like wingbeats. Long-tailed Glossy Starlings and Brown and Blackcap Babblers are noisy neighbours while regular camp visitors include Common Wattle-eye, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, African Paradise Flycatcher, Northern Puffback, Bronze-tailed Glossy Starling and Bar-breasted Firefinch, whereas the Pied Flycatcher looks slightly out of place.
An early morning stroll produces African Harrier Hawk, Senegal Parrot, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Northern Black Flycatcher, the understated Beautiful Sunbird, Klaas’s Cuckoo, which glitters like emeralds in the sunshine, and Red-throated Bee-eater which is another real ‘wow’ bird. The boat trip upstream proves remarkably productive with African Finfoot, just a few minutes into the ride, followed by a steady stream of sightings including Striated Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Hammerkop, Black-billed Wood Dove, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Swamp Flycatcher, African Pied Wagtail, Black-rumped Waxbill, Northern Carmine, Red-throated and Little Bee-eaters, several Egyptian Plovers, six different Kingfishers; Malachite, Pied, Woodland, Grey-headed, Blue-breasted and the mighty Giant, and loads of Senegal Thick-knees and Spur-winged, African Wattled, Black-headed and White-headed Lapwings, plus incredibly coloured Purple Glossy Starlings, with amazingly large yellow eyes. We also bump into half a dozen or so Hippos, before retreating downstream adding Vervet Monkey and a troop of about fifty Guinea Baboons to a fantastic list of sightings. The boat trip downstream is equally productive with many of the ‘usual suspects’, including Egyptian Plovers at less than ten yards, along with good views of Hadada Ibis, Shikra, Lizard Buzzard, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Yellow-fronted Canary and a yellow-throated variant of the Red-throated Bee-eater, while a bathing Grasshopper Buzzard allows the boat to approach to within ten yards, before we reverse to leave the bird to finish its bath in peace. We also find another couple of Hippos, plus four foot Monitor Lizards basking on the river bank, and an eight foot Cobra!
Sadly it is time to leave Wassadou, but we make time for a stroll along the access track on the way out, finding a commotion caused by Grey Woodpecker, Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Northern Puffback and Black-faced Firefinch, all mobbing a Pearl-spotted Owlet. An ever alert Shikra is showing really well at the nearby bridge, and on the long drive west to Kaolack, brief stops add Martial and Wahlberg’s Eagles to the list. After lunch in Kaolack, the road deteriorates to the extent that the driver opts for off road driving on bumpy sandy tracks through the scrub and hamlets of mud huts with thatched rooves alongside the ‘main road’. Eventually we arrive in Toubacouta in time for a stroll, finding African Golden Oriole, Lavender Waxbill, red-eyed Village Weavers and the amazing Bearded Barbet.
First thing this morning there is a commotion on the hotel car park stirred up by another Pearl-spotted Owlet. A good morning ensues with top birds not far from the hotel including Bush Petronia, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, more Bearded Barbets, Melodious Warbler, Montagu’s Harrier, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, glittering as it poses in the sunshine, Pygmy Sunbird in the same flowering Acacia as Beautiful Sunbird, and a group of five White-crested Helmet Shrikes with bizarre vertical crests as tall as chef’s hats! After lunch back at the hotel, a boat trip through the mangrove channels produces loads of Whimbrel, plus Caspian and Gull-billed Terns, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and an Osprey (8AK) on holiday from Germany! Landing on Sipo Island, we are greeted with handshakes from the local children, where a stroll produces Double-spurred Francolin, Rufous-crowned Roller, Vieillot’s Barbet, Yellow-fronted Canary and White-rumped Seedeater.
It’s our last day and so time to leave the Hotel Keur Saloum and drive back to Dakar via the ferry crossing at Foundiougne, with a chance for flight shots of Grey-headed Gulls and Sandwich and Caspian Terns. Not far from Dakar, a wetland is teeming with water birds such as African Darter, Black Heron, Great and Cattle Egrets, Pink-backed Pelican, Purple Swamphen, Garganey and Little Ringed Plover, which is new for the trip. The final stop by the coast in Dakar adds Bronze Manikins and a pair of Peregrines, spotted by sharp-eyed Carlos, roosting on a building overlooking the shore, making a grand total for the trip of 270 species! Egyptian Plover