The Farasuto Community Forest Reserve is a small yet significant forest reserve in The Gambia, cherished for its cultural heritage and diverse range of species. As I perused various trip reports, I discovered that bird enthusiasts frequently visited this reserve to observe forest birds, particularly those exclusive to forest habitats. My curiosity was piqued further when I engaged in a conversation with Babagalleh Bah, affectionately known as Baba. This encounter took place during my bird-watching excursion along the nature trail adjacent to the renowned Kotu Bridge at Kotu Creek. The Kotu Bridge holds immense popularity among bird watchers and is conveniently situated just a short stroll away from several tourist hotels in the coastal resort town of Kotu.
During my time at Kotu Bridge, a group of seasoned birding guides who were affiliated with the Gambian Bird Watchers Association happened to pass by on their way to enjoy a cup of tea. Intrigued by their expertise, I engaged in conversation with them. It was during this exchange that I discovered Baba's multifaceted role as the association's public relations officer and the president of the Farasuto Foundation.
The Gambia, being an Islamic country, holds cultural significance for the Farasuto Community Forest Reserve. In the past, this forest served as the location for circumcision ceremonies, which were conducted beneath specific trees. This cultural tradition contributed to the protection and preservation of the forest for numerous years.
From a biological standpoint, the Farasuto Community Forest Reserve holds immense importance as one of the few wet forests in the region, surrounded by drier savanna forests. This forest can be classified as an "island forest" due to its unique characteristics and isolated nature within the surrounding landscape. Two other notable wet evergreen forests near Kotu and Banjul are the Abuko Forest (45 hectares, or 110 acres) and the Pirang Bonto Forest (65 hectares, or 160 acres).
Despite its relatively small size of 4.5 hectares (11 acres), the Farasuto Community Forest Reserve still sustains a diverse range of forest bird species. Many years ago, a significant portion of The Gambia's land consisted of wet evergreen forests that provided habitats for large game species like giraffes, hippopotamuses, and lions. However, throughout the 20th century, extensive land clearing for commercial crops such as groundnuts resulted in the disappearance of these megafauna species. Today, only fragmented remnants of wet evergreen forests remain, making the conservation of places like the Farasuto Community Forest Reserve even more vital.
The nearest village to Farasuto is Kuloro, which boasts its own bird club called the Kuloro Bird Club. Many of The Gambia's professional bird guides hail from this area and are active members of the club. When visiting the Farasuto Community Forest Reserve, it is highly recommended to join an organized tour for the best experience, as there are three key sites in the vicinity that one should explore.
Firstly, the community forest itself is a must-visit location. It features a gated entrance and an outdoor seating area equipped with "water pots" designed to attract birds.
Secondly, there is a day roost where Greyish Eagle Owls can be found.
Lastly, there is a site known as the Honeyguide Gardens, which boasts a simple yet effective birdwatching hide. The hide is strategically positioned overlooking a small concrete pond and water pots, which are regularly filled to attract birds. This spot offers a peaceful and secluded vantage point for observing various bird species.
Having a knowledgeable guide and access to a vehicle will greatly enhance your experience as it enables convenient transportation between the three sites, ensuring a time-efficient and comprehensive exploration of the area.
For those interested in pre-trip reading, there is valuable information available on a website created by John Tucker, a British birder and conservationist, specifically dedicated to the Farasuto Forest Community Nature Reserve. The website offers a bird checklist for the site, as well as for The Gambia in general, and even provides a convenient downloadable Excel file. During my first conversation with Baba, he mentioned the term "forest obligates," which refers to birds that are confined to forest habitats. The website provides a comprehensive introduction to these species, offering valuable insights into their characteristics and importance.
The downloadable Excel file on the website contains a list of 12 forest obligate species found in Farasuto. These species include the African Goshawk, Western Little Sparrowhawk, Ahanta Francolin, White-spotted Flufftail, Green Turaco, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Little Greenbul, Leaflove, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Green Crombec, and Yellow-breasted Apalis. This is a noteworthy list, covering 12 out of the 18 recognized forest-obligate bird species in The Gambia.
I arrived at the Farasuto reserve accompanied by Baba and Lamin Darboe, a professional Gambian bird guide whom I had met at Kotu Bridge. Our visit started off well, right at the entrance. As we were parking the car, a double-spurred Francolin took flight, and the presence of a common wattle-eye was announced by its distinctive call. I was delighted to have a clear view of a Northern Crombec as it darted around, and I even managed to capture some impressive photographs.
The Crombecs and their relatives belong to the family Macrosphenidae, which is exclusive to Africa. Previously, these species were classified under the Sylvid Warblers in the Sylvidae family. The Macrosphenidae family consists of six genera, with the Crombecs belonging to the Sylvietta genus. While the Crombecs share a similar appearance with their short tails, the birds in the other genera exhibit striking differences in their appearance.
During our visit, we were able to hear the distinct call of a grey-backed carmoroptera. This bird belongs to the subfamily Eremomelinae, which is one of the four subfamilies within the Cisticolidae family. All six species in the Carmoroptera genus are found exclusively in Africa. Identifying these species can be challenging, but having Lamin and Baba, who were familiar with their calls, proved helpful.
Thanks to their expertise, Lamin was alerted to the presence of a yellow-fronted tinkerbird, an African barbet belonging to the Lybiidae family, which is confined to Africa. We also had the opportunity to observe an African pied hornbill. Although not a forest obligate, this bird relies on forest patches for roosting and nesting. Another notable sighting was a Yellow-crowned Gonolek, a bush shrike belonging to the Malaconotidae family, which is largely restricted to Africa with a minor presence in the Middle East.
As we ventured into the forest, the temperature dropped, and the air became more humid. Ancient, twisted trees and woody lianas adorned the landscape. Lamin drew our attention to the distinct call of a grey-headed bristlebill, a bird species that relies on the forest habitat. Bristlebills belong to the Pycnonotidae family, a diverse family with around 171 species found in Africa and Asia. Many of the 33 genera within this family are restricted to either Africa or Asia. The five species of bristlebills in the Bleda genus are specifically confined to the forests of West Africa. Baba thought he spotted another forest obligate, an African goshawk. Later, as we were heading back, we had a remarkable encounter with an African goshawk flying gracefully along a forest path toward us.
Beyond the forest, there was an open water area where we spotted a perched giant kingfisher. A pair of Pied Kingfishers were also present, with the male distinguished by its double collar band. Along the muddy edges of the water, we observed African Wattled Lapwings, Spurwing Lapwings, and Senegal Thick-knees. A solitary white-backed night heron was also in the vicinity. Baba informed me that this heron is typically found inland and is best seen in Tendaba. Farasuto, being one of the closest sites to Kotu, provides an opportunity to spot this bird.
During our exploration, we caught sight of an osprey in flight, adorned with rings on both legs. Unfortunately, it was too far away for me to clearly photograph the rings. I couldn't help but wonder if the osprey had migrated from Britain, the same country I had come from to visit The Gambia. This encounter, along with the waders I had previously seen near the Banjul ferry terminal, reinforced the importance of cross-boundary conservation plans for birds, encompassing countries from different continents.
As we departed from the wet forest, what appeared to be a forest cobra hastily slithered across the path, serving as a reminder of the importance of wearing long trousers and sturdy shoes in tropical forests. The agamid lizard was the only other reptile I managed to spot.
We then embarked on a short drive to the location where a pair of greyish eagle owls were roosting. In order to minimize disturbance, we left after a brief observation. However, within the secondary growth, we were fortunate to witness the presence of several other captivating bird species. Among them were a Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, a female Variable Sunbird, and a Beautiful Sunbird. We also heard the call of a grey-backed carmoroptera, while a pair of red-cheeked cordonbleus flew right up to us.
Our next stop was the Honeyguide Gardens, where Lamin's keen hearing led us to the sound of a woodpecker's pecking. Above us, perched a Cardinal Woodpecker. From the hide, we were treated to the delightful sight of several birds that frequented the water pots and the small cement pond. Among them were the Spotted Honeyguide, Snowy-crowned Robinchat, Red-billed Firefinch, Black-billed Wood Dove, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Vinaceous Dove, Pygmy Kingfisher, Common Redstart, Common Wattle-eye, and a Long-tailed Starling. An African thrush, unafraid and curious, made its way in a circular motion around the hide, allowing for a close encounter.
The honeyguides, belonging to the family Indicatoridae, are primarily found in Africa, with 15 out of the 17 species occurring on the continent, while the remaining two species are found in Asia. They are renowned for their behaviour of leading people to honeycombs, hence their name. Honeyguides have also adopted an unusual lifestyle as brood parasites, similar to cuckoos, by laying their eggs in the nests of hole-nesting birds such as kingfishers, barbets, and bee-eaters. Once hatched, the young honeyguide uses a specialized tooth in its bill to eliminate any offspring of the host bird. In some cases, the honeyguide mother even destroys the host's eggs upon laying her own. Despite their intriguing yet somewhat macabre behaviour, honeyguides themselves are often inconspicuous and unassuming birds that would go unnoticed if not for their association with "water pots."
In The Gambia, these water pots, essentially bird baths, have become a common feature in tourist hotels due to the growing popularity of birdwatching tourism alongside beach tourism. Watching birds from a hide positioned next to water pots is a very relaxed way of getting familiar with African birds. One of the appealing aspects of birdwatching in The Gambia is the opportunity to observe birds on foot or from boats, eliminating the need for long and bumpy rides in safari vehicles.