The prospects of a day trip from The Gambia to Senegal to view wildlife had not crossed my mind when I booked a week’s stay at the Hotel Bakotu in The Gambia in the beach resort town of Kotu. Fortunately for me, I was alerted to the possibility by the hotel noticeboard, which had some posters from local tour companies that ran day safari trips to Senegal. The posters claimed that larger mammals such as giraffe and waterbuck could be seen at the Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal, unlike in The Gambia, where, sadly, larger mammals are almost entirely extirpated. We were in The Gambia in early November, soon after the rains had ceased. The vegetation was lush. A day after our arrival, we quite by chance met Mawdo, a professional birdwatching guide and one of the members of the Birdwatchers Association of The Gambia. We had booked a day’s birdwatching at sites close to Kotu. Having had our interest piqued at the prospect of a day safari to Senegal, we had asked him to make the arrangements.
Mawdo had arrived for a 7 a.m. pick-up, and we drove to the ferry terminal in Banjul. In terms of the local geography, the capital, Banjul, is on an island, and one drives over a bridge to cross over to the island. But without looking at a map, it is not obvious that the capital is on an island. From the ferry terminal in Banjul, we took the ferry to the north bank of the River Gambia in Barrau, where we were picked up by Buba in his Land Rover. For certain nationalities, such as those from many European countries, it is fairly straightforward to cross the border from Gambia into Senegal and back into Gambia. Many of the tourist hotels in Gambia have arrangements with tour companies that offer day trips to Senegal to visit the Fathala Wildlife Reserve. If you have a specific interest in wildlife or birds, then it is better to have a trip organized by one of the professional birding guides. The park office had a large seating area for visitors and a café that served decent food. There was a steady stream of visitors, especially those coming over the border from The Gambia. Many of them were tourists coming to have selfies taken of themselves and to walk with trained lions that have been kept in captivity since a young age.
The game drive in Fathala was better than I had expected for seeing mammals. Soon after entering the reserve, we encountered a group of waterbuck. They were the subspecies of Defassa waterbuck, one of two subspecies of the waterbuck. A male was guarding his harem of females. We also came across a herd of roan antelope, but they were shy and rapidly retreated. A troop of Patas monkeys were walking along the road, but they too were quite shy and retreated into the bushes. Two giraffes we met were far more relaxed and continued to browse. They carried on their necks a number of yellow-billed oxpeckers. Oxpeckers on zebras and giraffes are familiar from photographs and wildlife documentaries, and it is easy to overlook what an unusual group of birds the oxpeckers are. They are in the family Buphagidae, which comprises just two species, the red-billed and yellow-billed oxpeckers. The oxpeckers are a family found only in Africa but are closely related to the starlings (family Sturnidae) and the thrushes and Old World flycatchers (family Muscicapidae), which have a wider global distribution. Other than when nesting, oxpeckers spend pretty much their whole lives riding atop a large herbivore, eating ectoparasites or wound tissue. They even sleep on the herbivore. It is quite amazing that so much of their world is centered around the mammals they choose to ride on.
The forest in the reserve was wooded with Combretum species of trees interwoven with grassland. It looked attractive and full of promise for wildlife tourists. The bird life was rich, and we had close views of stunning birds like the Abyssinian Roller. We took lunch with our take-away pizzas beside a small man-made pond, which attracted birds. This allowed me to get a good view of a juvenile Greater Honeyguide. The honeyguides are another family with a special connection to Africa, with 15 of the 17 species found only in Africa. Two of the species, the Malay honeyguide and the yellow-rumped honeyguide, are found in Asia. The honeyguides are famous for their association with mammals (including people), whom they lead to honey. However, this is only proven with the Greater Honeyguide. But it is a fact that their main diet is beeswax, which requires special enzymes to break down. They also have remarkable lives as brood parasites like the better-known cuckoos. A female Greater Honeyguide will puncture the eggs of the host, typically a tree-hole nesting species such as a barbet, kingfisher, or bee-eater. Even if the eggs of the host hatch, any competing nestlings are killed by the honeyguide hatchling, which is born with a toothed beak and will use its weapon when still blind at birth. Being nondescript and discrete birds, honeyguides are easily overlooked. Birders typically resort to stationing themselves at the ‘water pots’ that are placed in reserves in The Gambia, which provide the best chance to see this special family of birds.
In the park, I also observed a small party of White-crested Helmet Shrikes. They are in the family Vangidae, which is confined to Africa and Asia. The family has two subfamilies, with the subfamily Vanginae having many genera and the species in the subfamily confined to Madagascar. Interestingly, all of these species have arisen from a single colonisation event. The subfamily Prionopinae, to which the Helmet Shrikes belong, is less diverse, with just 6 genera compared to 15 in the subfamily Vanginae. However, I noticed that the Helmet-shrikes look very different from others in the subfamily, such as the Flycatcher-shrikes and Wood-shrikes I have seen in Asia. The park was also good for other birds special to Africa, including the African Barbets (family Lybiidae). We had views of the magnificent Bearded Barbet, a black and yellow bird. The Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird is much smaller, but it gave itself away with its metallic call, reminiscent of a metalsmith engaged in metal tinkering work.
It had been a pretty eventful day going to Senegal and back. The ferry trip from Banjul to Barra and back had also proven to be quite useful to watch seabirds such as gray-headed gulls, Caspian, Royal, and Sandwich terns. I even had a distant view of a juvenile Pomarine Skua. I also had one of the best wader watching sessions I have had on what is known as the Bund Road, at a location close to the Banju ferry terminal. This is covered in one of my previous articles in this series of articles from The Gambia.