I find myself watching waders, gulls terns and herons and it is one of the most species rich accumulations of waterbirds I have had the pleasure of watching from a single viewpoint. I have over twenty species of birds in sight, some of them very close. Interestingly, this wader watching session was unexpected. I am in Gambia, about a kilometer or so away from the ferry terminal at Banjul, on what has been known birders for a long time as the Bund Road. Its official name is Kankujereh Road. We had crossed over from Barrau (on the north bank of the River Gambia) from a day trip to Senegal and were on our way to our hotel in Kuta when Mawdo Keita, our guide who was also driving us pulled over. Seeing such a diverse gathering of water bird species was better than expected, but it was not entirely accidental. Let me begin with a little of the back story.
I had arrived to spend a week at the Bakotu Hotel in the beach resort town of Kotu. The main purpose was to bird watch in this area and we had planned to hire local guides for a series of half day and full day trips. On our first morning we had walked across the road from the hotel to the beach to familiarise ourselves with the surroundings. To our pleasant surprise we bumped into Mawdo who is one of the many professional bird watching guides in this country, the smallest in Africa. Mawdo recognised my wife and me as bird watchers as we had binoculars on us. He was wearing a shirt which identified him as a member of the Gambian Bird Watchers Association. We fell into conversation and went with him to the association’s office, five minutes walk away next to the famous Kotu Bridge and planned a few trips.
I had mentioned to Mawdo that I would like to see a Black Heron which is famous for opening out its wings into an umbrella shape and shading the water when it is fishing. On the way back to the Bakotu Hotel, Mawdo had taken the Bund Road from the ferry Terminal which passes a wetland area. A fairly shallow delta had partially filled in with tidal water. The shallow water was wrapped around a strip of slightly higher land which had formed a thin, long sand island, at a distance of a couple of hundred meters from the road. On it were two to three hundred Grey-headed Gulls. Standing taller was a Kelp Gull. The Grey-headed Gull occurs as two subspecies, with one in South America and the other in Africa.
There are several records of Grey-headed Gulls occurring in Europe as vagrants, but for practical purposes the subspecies poicephalus was an African bird and I was pleased to see them in good numbers. They breed mainly inland but during November to April they congregate on the coastline. There were also a few Caspian Terns, the largest species of Tern. The Caspian is both a resident as well as a palearctic migrant. Also present were Royal Terns, the second largest species of Tern. The Caspian has a red bill and the Royal has an orange yellow bill. On the ferry ride between Banjul and Barrau I had photographed both species in flight. The Caspian has a dusky edge on the underside tip whereas the Royal has the underwing pale except for a dark line formed at the tips of the primary feathers.
There were waders on the water as well as on dry land. Scanning the wetland I noted the species I could see. These included palearctic migrants such as Common Sandpiper, Greenshank, Common Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel. Some of the waders such as the Black-winged Stilt is both a Palearctic migrant as well as an Afrotropical visitor. Resident waterbirds included Long-tailed Cormorant, Spur-winged Lapwing, Little, Large and Black Heron, African Spoonbill and Pink-backed Pelican. I could see Black Herons fishing forming the famous umbrella shape with their wings. Unfortunately for me they were too far out for good photographs. Much more obliging was a Squacco Heron at close range.
Close to the road was a water filled hollow. A Greenshank and Black-winged Stilts flew in offering close views. As we watched other birds such as Spur-winged Lapwings took turns to come in close to feed in the water-filed hollow before moving away. It was one of the best wader watching sessions I have had with over 25 species of water birds in total from a single viewpoint.
The waterbirds I was watching from the Bund Road were not going to compete with the birds I had been watching over lunch earlier on in the day at the waterhole in Fathala Wildife Reserve. I had seen or heard many birds including Palm-nut Vulture, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Greater Honeyguide, Yellow-fronted Canary, Black-billed Wood Dove, Northern Red Bishop, Bearded Barbet, Veilot’s Barbet and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, all whilst having a take-away pizza. The birding highlight in the reserve was a small flock of White-crested Bush Shrikes. For the avoidance of doubt, I could have seen all of these species in Gambia as well.
Nevertheless, to return to Gambia from a day trip to Fathala and have such a fantastic session with such a wonderful diversity of waterbirds was special and underlines how important many of these African wetlands are for many Palearctic birds, many of which may have migrated from the same European countries that visiting birders have come from. On another day, when I was visiting Farasuto Community Forest, we watched an Osprey that had migrated over. I wondered if it had come from Britain. It is not difficult to see why major European conservation bodies such as the RSPB are increasing their footprint globally as conservation with migratory species requires a joined-up effort spanning many countries on migratory routes.