I leave the Hotel Bakotu before 7am on a day in November and I reach the Kotu Bridge which is just five minutes walk away under a sky which is rapidly brightening. From the bridge I look over the creek as the tint of pink in the sky begins to be erased as the sun begins its ascent. The birdlife is already active. In my earlier article, I set the scene for my arrival in Gambia, for my first trip, one in which birding would be a major focus. This was my second morning in The Gambia. I had spent the previous day becoming acquainted with the surroundings of my hotel and I had already visited the Kotu Bridge famous with bird watchers. A few tens of meters away from the bridge is the office of the Gambian Birdwatchers Association. This is an organisation for professional bird watching guides. I learnt that they have around seventy five members. A small number of the professional bird guides hang about the bridge scouting for prospective clients. But they are very professional and courteous. They do not badger you and if you have already hired a guide they have a strict code of conduct and no one tries to poach another’s client. This makes it easy to fall into conversation with the guides and bird watch from the bridge.
One of the people I got talking to was Lamin Darboe who has been a professional birding guide ever since he left school. Lamin gets up at 4.30am and takes a bush taxi to come to the bridge. Public transport in The Gambia is very poor and I noticed how it is common practice for people to flag down a passing vehicle. Sometimes a vehicle owner who is driving into work will get into the habit of picking up a regular group of passengers who pay for the lift and operate what is termed a bush taxi. As is the case with the other professional bird guides, Lamin really knows his birds and can identify them from their calls. Most of the bird guides charge similar rates for a half day or full day birding trip and will quote an all inclusive fee including transport and any applicable entrance fees. In a sense they are also tour operators. My wife and I were quite happy to book excursions through them and to spread the business we went out with three different guides during a week’s stay. Many of the tourist hotels will also arrange for a birding guide who will also organise the transport. Whilst chatting to Lamin, he drew my attention to an Oriole Warbler, an unusual bird that does not look anything like a typical warbler. It is now classified as a member of the Cisticolas. The Oriole Warbler was a bird I was keen to see and having Lamin picking it out from its call underscored how having a professional bird guide can make a difference.
Kotu Bridge is a favourite spot with bird photographers for its kingfishers. From the bridge, I had clear but distant views of an African Pygmy Kingfisher that perched on a dead branch. By spending some time in the area I had several views of Pied and Blue-breasted Kingfishers. Nine species of kingfishers are found in The Gambia and it is not unusual for people on a week’s birding tour to see around seven of them. Although birds like kingfishers and rollers steal the show with their beautiful plumage, in this article I will focus on the bird families that are confined to Africa and demonstrate why Kotu Bridge is such a good place to start your African birding.
For me the star bird I saw on the bridge was the Yellow-crowned Gonolek. This a bush-shrike in the family Malaconotidae. It is a stunning bird with red underparts, black upperparts and a golden crown. The bush-shrikes are confined to sub-Saharan Africa and that makes them special. The family comprises of nine genera. The Gonoleks and the Boubous are in the genus Laniarius which is the most species rich with 20 species. Even their names sound exotic and something other worldly when you spend most of your time birding in Europe and Asia. I also loved listening to the liquid notes of the gonolek’s call. For any reader interested in learning the bird call of Africa, I would recommend the free app developed by the African Bird Club. You can also search for specific bird calls on sites such as xeno-canto. Another free app which is superb for identifying what you hear is the Merlin Bird app developed by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology. Another genus of the bush-shrikes is the Tchagra with 4 species. The genus name is conveniently also the common name. I was looking out for the Black-crowned Tchagra but I first caught up with a Northern Puffback another of the bush-shrikes in the genus Dryoscopus with 6 species.
The bush-shrikes are not the only Africa-only family of birds to be seen from Kotu Bridge. The Batises and Wattle-eyes (family Platysteridae) are also found here. The Common or Brown-throated Wattle-eye is a common species in The Gambia located by its plaintive whistle. The Platysterids are also confined to sub-Saharan Africa. The African Barbets in the family Lybiidae as the name suggests are confined to Africa whilst the barbets in Asia are in a different family the Megalaimidae. However, they do share some vocal similarities. More easily heard than seen are the tinkerbirds, a kind of barbet whose call is very similar to the Asian coppersmith barbets. They both derive their name from their calls which sound like a blacksmith is hammering on a metal plate. I could hear a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, but an even more stunning barbet was the Bearded Barbet which showed up. It is a striking bird with black upperparts and red on the face and breast.
The turacos (Family Musophagidae) are another family endemic to Africa. Taxonomists divide the turacos into three subfamilies. The Western Grey Plantain-eater is in the subfamily Musophaginae. It is one of the three turacos found in The Gambia and the most easily seen. Its calls are reminiscent of an indignant fowl. As they show themselves quite readily on the tree canopy, I had good views from Kotu Bridge. The other two Turacos, the Green Turcao and Violet Turcao like forest and I found them more easily in the Abuko Forest Reserve which is around an hour’s drive from Kotu.
The Woodhoopoes (family Phoeniculidae) are also confined to sub-Saharan Africa. They are interesting birds with scimitar like bills, long tails and glossy black plumage. Whilst walking the nature trail which starts near Kotu Bridge I had a party of Green Wood-hoopoes fly past. They are cooperative breeders with the young assisting a pair of parents who serve as the core breeders. They also excrete a foul exudate to ward off predators and ecto-parasites.
Kotu Bridge is also an easy place in which to see the Hammerkop, the only species in the family Scopidae which is also confined to Africa. They build enormous nests. They are in the scientific order Pelecaniformes which includes familiar waterbirds such as the ibises and spoonbills, herons and the pelicans. It also includes the rare Shoebill, which is also the single member of its family.
I have now described five families of birds found only in Africa which are easily seen from the area around Kotu Bridge. This illustrates why the tourist hotels in Kotu are such a wonderful and relaxing way for bird watchers to become acquainted with African birds. But birding in Africa is fantastic not just for birds in families confined to Africa, they also have an explosion of species in other families that are familiar to visitors. The starlings are a spectacular example of a familiar family with a great diversity of species and some stunning looking birds. The Long-tailed Starling is an amazing looking bird that I saw flying over as I left my hotel. They are seen in urban areas.
A few meters beyond Kotu Bridge in a cleared field I observed how the iridescent feathers shone on Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starlings. Feeding on the road verges were beautiful Red-billed Firefinches and Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus. Western Red-billed Hornbills seemed unconcerned at my presence. Laughing Doves and African Mourning Doves almost landed at my feet to feed on stubble. From the bridge, the tide running out had exposed mud flats bringing out a number of Senegal Thick-knees, Spur-winged Lapwings and African Wattled Lapwings. A Western Reef Egret fished closed to the road. On the nature trail past the bridge, gaudily coloured Fiddler Crabs scuttled about on the mud. Some even climbed the mangrove plants. A periodically flooded section of the trail was good for Mudskippers which skittered away at my approach. They are interesting fish that can survive out of water. I could see how they used their modified pectoral fins like legs to hold them up. Little Bee-eaters hunted over the mangroves. Atop a bush I could see two Yellow-billed Shrikes. Palm trees dotted the savanna vegetation. Overhead, Hooded Vultures and Yellow-billed Kites soared on the thermals. I was bird watching in The Gambia and loving it. With some reluctance I headed back to the hotel for some breakfast.