In November, at 6.45am it is still dark in Gambia. But I knew that in another 15 minutes it would be as if someone had switched on the lights. It is surprising how quickly the African night is banished by the incoming day. A huge contrast to Western Europe when in summer the dawn light seems to linger for hours before a conclusive day break. Having arrived from London, one of the African features I was drinking in was the soundscape. In London where I live, double glazing shields the night sounds of the city although occassionaly the distant rumble of a train may be heard or a siren pierces through the glass. In The Gambia, I was in a room beside a small wooded thicket dominated by a large ficus tree. Aerial roots the thickness of my arms propped it up like pylons holding up a radio mast. Palm trees and an introduced Teak tree added to the mix. A chorus of calls resonated throughout the night. Some amphibian in origin and some insect. What I believe was a cicada uttered a rhythmic metallic call as if a metalsmith was beating a metal plate. As it shifted position the volume and direction would vary. A kingfisher would occassionaly break out into a whinnying scream. I was left to guess that it was the Green Vervet Monkeys uttering the soft coughs. None of this disturbed me. I relished it. I had been looking forward to the African soundscape as much as the wildlife.
Although I had been to Africa several times before to watch its wildlife, this was my first trip to The Gambia and I knew it would be different. In the well-known safari destinations such as Kenya and Tanzania, out of necessity for safety, one has to be in a safari vehicle. It is simply unsafe to go about on foot outside your lodge in a wildlife reserve in case a large predator or herbivore kills you. In Gambia, the wildlife watching experience is very different as much of the bird watching is done on foot.
I was staying at the Hotel Bakotu in Kotu beside the Gambian coast. The hotel is on the landward side of the road running next to the beach. Although this means it is not a beach-side location this is compensated by the back of the hotel looking onto fields and a section of the Kotu Creek, an area of mangrove. For those who want sun and sand the beach is just two minutes walk across the road. The Gambia is unusual as a tourist destination as its appeal to foreign visitors seem to be defined by beaches and birding. I don’t think I have been anywhere where the local community around the cluster of tourist hotels were so switched on to birding. If we walked into a hotel or street-side café, seeing me and my wife with binoculars, people would ask what we had seen and what the bird of the day was.
One of the things I especially noticed in Gambia was the concept of ‘water pots’. Some are literally pots, but many are shallow bowls of around 8 to 12 inches in diameter the size a large pizza. The shallow bowls are also like the clay or cement trays placed underneath a pot to catch excess water draining through an indoor potted plant. In Europe they would be described as bird baths. Birds do indeed bathe in them as the shallow bowls are perfect for this. But as the temperature rises, they are a magnet for thirsty birds and other animals. These water pots are a big feature in the eco lodges as well as the larger tourist hotels which have become popular with bird watchers. Many of the bird watchers are from European countries such as Britain and the Netherlands which seem to have a high number of birders per capita. In some of the community forests such as Farasuto which are managed for birders, the water pots have become a central feature, with a simple bird watching hide positioned next to them. The result is simply magic. Birds that would otherwise be difficult to see offer good views as they come in to drink.
At my hotel, I sat outside the room and observed the wildlife coming to drink. Even the crows here are handsome. The Pied Crow is a raven-sized bird which is very smart in black and white. Speckled Pigeons, Red-eyed Doves and African Mourning Doves visited. I was especially pleased to have both Black-capped Babblers and Brown Babblers drinking and bathing. These are social birds but they tend to forage on the forest floor and do not always offer clear views. Overhead, there were always Yellow-billed Kites in the air. A pair of Hooded Vultures kept alighting on a tall palm. It is quite something to see birds such as vultures from the convenience of a pool-side café. Incredibly looking Beautiful Sunbirds which lived up to the name perched atop a Mango tree. A small pond beside the pool was busy with the aerial forays of at least five different species of dragonflies. A few species of butterflies known as White and Yellows (in the Family Pieridae) nectared on the flower bed.
The Bakotu Hotel does not set out to be an eco-lodge, but it has a good combination of having wildlife in and around it and creature comforts that has made it a popular choice for British bird watchers. It is undoubtedly helped by British TV Wildlife celebrity Chris Packham endorsing it as the hotel of his choice. The hotel even has it its own birdwatching platform overlooking the Kotu Creek. From it, in the distant mud I could see Hammerkops, Spur-winged Lapwings, Wattled Lapwings and Senegal Thick-knees. An African Paradise Flycatcher made aerial sorties over the water under the platform. Flocks of African Palm Swifts and Little Swifts picked off insects in the sky. I could see the roof of a watchpoint beside the Kotu Bridge. The area around the bridge is yet another reason why the Bakotu Hotel has become a preferred choice for bird watchers as the area around the bridge is a superb place for people to become introduced to some of the commoner African birds. In my next article I will focus on Birdwatching at Kotu Creek, which is a few minutes’ walk from the cluster of beach hotels at Kotu.