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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bird Watching in The Gambia

Ironically, I was enrolled in an Ornithology course when I received the news that I would be going to The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer. After looking up The Gambia, since I had no idea where it was at that point, I learned that bird watching comprises a sizable part of The Gambia’s tourism. I promptly ordered “Birds of The Gambia and Senegal” by Clive Barlow and Tim Wacher, with illustrations by Tony Disley, which is a fantastic field guide.

Bird watching became a regular pastime for me during the three years I spent in The Gambia. What follows is a collection of observations and reflections on the many times I went wondering through the bush with a pair of binoculars. Please note that I am not an Ornithologist and I am not an expert on Gambian birds.

The best places to go bird watching were typically along the river or in any area near water. Open fields and village gardens were my favorite spots. The best times were in the early morning and late evening.

Fun fact: birds are quite similar to human beings.

(1) Birds, like humans, are highly aware of their appearance. They spend hours grooming and bathing in order to appear healthy and attractive.

(2) Birds, like humans, are highly social and can communicate. They use their voices to raise alarms, attract mates, and even to identify their offspring or relatives.

(3) Birds, like humans, have highly varied forms of communication; each species essentially speaks a different “language.”

(4) Male and female birds, like humans, tend to share the responsibility of raising their young.

(5) Male and female birds, like humans, tend to form monogamous breeding or life-long pairs, though they are not always sexually faithful.

Some observations and reflections on the birds I’ve seen in The Gambia.

Pelicans: There are two species but the Pink-backed Pelican is the most notable. They are huge birds and tend to nest up in Kiang near Tendaba. Dozens of them will nest in a single tree, which is an amazing sight.

Hamerkops: Duck-sized, brown birds that hang out near the river or fish for frogs in puddles on the up-country roads. They have long, thin feathers that extend from the backs of their heads, resembling the shape of a hammer. They build huge nests in dead trees by the river that they often re-use every year.


Cattle Egrets: These slim, white birds are about a foot tall and are always hanging out with cattle. More impressive is the Great-white Egret, a tall, slim bird that can be seen from miles away.

Vultures: Hooded Vultures can be found all over The Gambia, sometimes gliding miles up in the sky. They are some of the largest birds in The Gambia and tend to gather in big groups in trees or on the ground. Seeing vultures circling over a market is a sure sign that meat is available. A notable figure is the Palm-nut Vulture; which is black and white with a red eye-ring. It is a “vegetarian vulture,” feeding almost exclusively on palm nuts.

Pied Crows: Large, black crows that appear to be wearing white undershirts. They can be found all over The Gambia, though they favor the coastal regions. While displaying, male Crows make a strange croaking sound and spread their wings out like they are balancing on a high wire.

Pied Crow:

Raptors: There are many different types of eagles, hawks, and falcons in The Gambia. I was not good at identifying them, though one of the most striking was the Fish Eagle: a large, majestic bird that lives along the river. It is the “bald eagle” of The Gambia. One raptor I frequently noticed while up-country was the Shikra. It is a small, hawk-life bird with a grey back and black-and-brown striped under-parts. They have sharp talons, long legs, and bright red eyes.


Guineafowl: Helmeted Guineafowl are chicken sized birds with a creaky, metallic call: almost like a rusty spring on a truck. They are all black with white spots and a white head. Their feathers are fun to collect.

Four-banded Sandgrouse: A small, tan bird that blends in perfectly with the dried grass that covers the farm fields in the dry season. While I was running through the fields, these Sandgrouse would often give me a heart attack as they exploded out of the grass along the side of the path I was running on.

African Jacanas: Small water birds with enormous feet. They have a blue patch running across the top of their bill, as if someone ran a paintbrush down the front of their face. Jacanas can be found in almost any pond or swamp in The Gambia.

African Jacana:

Plovers: Spur-winged Plovers are small birds that stand on tall, thin legs. They have black heads with bright white cheeks. They are very territorial and will raise a racket if you get too close for their comfort. The Wattled Plover is a similar bird that frequently hangs out on the edges of the river. They are brown and display a long, yellow wattle that hangs down from the base of their beaks.

Spur-winged Plover:

Doves: The African Mourning Dove and the Vinaceous Dove are the most common Doves in The Gambia. They strut around on the ground and hang out on telephone wires. They have a funny call that sounds like a high-pitched cat’s purr. The Namaqua Dove is more common up-country and is a smaller, thinner, darker dove. The Speckled Pigeon can be found in the coastal regions and is unmistakable with its brown-and-white patterning and red eye-ring. These doves like to perch on the corrugated roofs of houses and flirt with each other by repeatedly flying up and landing together, causing a huge racket.

Senegal Coucals: Crow sized birds with brown wings, white bellies, black tails, black caps, and red eyes. They hang around in trees and forage on the ground, industriously sifting through grass while walking forward. They have a loud “wo wo wo wo” call that starts fast and then decreases in rapidity. They make this call while pointing their heads down and inflating their throats.

Senegal Coucal:

Piapiacs: Large, black birds that resemble Crows but are thinner with larger bills and longer tails. They forage on the ground in large groups, usually near water and often near animals. You can sometimes see one of these birds perched on the back of a nearby goat or cow, keeping watch. The animals don’t seem to mind them and the Piapiac will stay perched even as the animal moves around, giving the impression that the bird is riding the animal.

Nightjars: Very hard to spot, due to the fact that they blend in perfectly with the undergrowth in the fields. In breeding season, Standard-winged Nightjar males grow insanely long, bare feathers off each wing that are only feathered at the tips.

Standard-winged Nightjar:

Swallows: Small and thinly built birds with sharp wings and forked tails. These features make them expert fliers. Swallows tend to perch in groups on telephone wires and fly high up in the air, looping and diving as they catch insects. They are orange and blue, though the different species wear these colors in different combinations. In Tanjeh I would often see Swallows flying low over the road, quickly dodging cars and pedestrians, seemingly for fun though I assume they were hunting insects.

Green Wood Hoopoes: Thin birds that appear to be black from a distance but are actually iridescent green. They have long bills and long tails with white-striped outer bars. They are some of the noisiest birds in The Gambia. They travel in groups and emit a shrill, laughing call that they combine together into a cacophonous chorus while bowing back and forth together on a single perch. It’s quite the spectacle. They are very good at perching on the sides of trees or walls, resembling magnets on a refrigerator.

Green Wood Hoopoe:

Kingfishers: Small birds with disproportionately large bills. There are many different species in The Gambia, but the most notable is the Pied Kingfisher. They have a white belly with a black belt and a black-and-white speckled back, as well as a huge, black bill. They frequently hang out on telephone wires or tree branches over water, looking for fish. When feeding, they fly out over the water and hover in place before dropping straight down to catch a fish. They can hover perfectly in place for up to 30 seconds. It’s incredible. While in Fatoto I once caught an injured Malachite Kingfisher. It was small but covered with beautiful iridescent-blue stripes and it displayed an impressive crest of striped green-and-blue feathers.

Malachite Kingfisher: Ian Haight

Rollers: Dove sized birds with large heads, beautiful wing patches, and long tail hairs. Blue-bellied Rollers are blue and black with white heads. They are frequently found in the coastal area. They have two long tail hairs, giving them a deeply forked tail. When flying they show off brilliantly iridescent-blue wing patches. The Abyssinian Roller is uniform blue with a brown back and white eye-stripe. These Rollers are very common up-country; frequently perching on telephone wires or on lone-standing coos stalks in a cleared field. They are very aggressive and territorial, and have a grating, dry call. I was once dive-bombed by one while on a run through the fields. They get their name from their awesome flight displays. The males will fly high up into the sky and then fall while steering back and forth in a rolling, flipping display that is very fast and amazing to see. The Broad-billed Roller is purple and brown and tends to live close to the river. Broad-billed Rollers lack the tail hairs that the other two species have.

Abyssinian Roller:

Bee-eaters: Fantastically colored little birds. They tend to be green but also have combinations of red, blue, orange, yellow, black, and white depending on the species. They all have a black stripe across their eye, like they are wearing bandit masks.

Little Bee-eaters:

Senegal Parrots: Short, grey-headed parrots with yellow bellies and short tails. In Janjanbury I saw the same Parrot sitting and foraging on the same tree every day at around the same time. Apparently they are creatures of habit.

Turacos: Some of the most splendid birds in The Gambia. There are two species. Violet Turacos are all purple with bright red wing tips. However, the only Turaco I can claim to have seen is the Green Turaco. I spotted it once while in Abuko nature reserve. It is mottled green with a big Mohawk and the same bright red wing tips.

Green Turaco:

Western Grey Plaintain-eaters: One of the larger and more common birds in The Gambia. They tend to be dark grey with yellow bills and sport long feathers off the backs of their heads: giving the impression that they have dreadlocks. They have a high, barking call that they often emit during flight.

Western Grey Plaintain-eater:

Hornbills: There are many kinds of Hornbills in The Gambia. The most common is the Red-billed Hornbill. They are the smallest of the Hornbills and are all white with black-patterned wings. They have long, curved orangey-red bills that tend to be yellow at the base. They have a high-pitched, squeaky call that they emit while perched high up in trees. They forage on the ground, sifting through dirt and leaves for ants and other insects. They have a unique flight pattern that consists of a few rapid wing beats and then a smooth fall with the wings tucked in, followed by an upwards glide as they extend their wings out. They fly in a sort of sin-wave pattern, smoothly rising and falling. The African Grey Hornbill is slightly larger than the Red-billed Hornbill and is much darker: typically grey and black all over. They emit the same high-pitched, squeaky call while also puffing their wings out and tilting their heads back and forth in a dance. The largest of the Hornbills is the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill. This is a huge, all-black Hornbill with a red wattle. It struts around on the ground and I have only ever seen it in Kiang from the window of a car. They are capable of flying, showing off bright white wing tips while in flight.

Red-billed Hornbill:

Common Bulbuls: Small, greyish-black birds with small crests and dark eyes. They can be found all over The Gambia and have a high pitched “to-trick or to-treat” call. They usually hang around in pairs or groups and are very vocal, especially early in the morning.

Robin-chats: The White-crowned Robin-chat and the Snowy-crowned Robin-chat are two very similar birds. They both have bright orange belly’s that extend back and become orange tail-bars. They have black backs and white crowns on their heads. The White-crowned Robin-chat is larger and has a mottled-white crown and black cap that extends all the way down its neck. The Snowy-crowned Robin-chat has an orange collar around its neck and an all-white crown.

Snowy-crowned Robin-chat:

Grey-backed Camaropteras: Tiny little fellows with white bellies, greyish backs, and brownish-green wings. They have a short, thin tail that they keep pointed sharply up in the air. They tend to forage on the ground, dexterously hopping back and forth between branches and the ground while emitting a short “zbbzeee” call, almost like they are suppressing a sneeze.

Beautiful Sunbirds: There are many different Sunbirds in The Gambia. They tend to resemble humming birds because they are small, thin, fast moving, and iridescently colored. The most common species is the Beautiful Sunbird. While the females and immature males have plain white bellies with grey backs and caps, the breeding males are extravagant. They are iridescent green with a belt across their belly that is yellow near their wings and red at the center. When the sun hits them at the right angle they show off an incredible shiny-green color. The breeding males also grow two long tail-hairs that extend back from the center of their tail.

Beautiful Sunbird:

Yellow-crowned Gonoleks: Pigeon sized birds that have bright red bellies, black backs and tails, and yellow crowns. They can be found all over The Gambia and are easy to hear but hard to spot. They have a quick, loud “eyu-we-eyu” call that almost sounds like someone whistling for your attention. This call is closely followed by two clicking sounds. However, two different birds make the whistles and the clicks. The clicks are a response from one bird to the first birds whistle. It is done so perfectly that you can hardly notice.

Yellow-crowned Gonolek:

Yellow-billed Oxpeckers: Small, brown birds that have yellow bills with red tips. They forage on the ground and also perch on the sides of cows and donkeys to feed on the insects that hang around the animals. They have also been known to excise existing wounds in the animals’ hides. This is most likely why cows and donkeys tend to swat at the Oxpeckers to get them off their backs.

Starlings: Some of the most common birds in The Gambia. You can see Long-tailed Glossy Starlings and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starlings almost anywhere in The Gambia. They are medium sized, iridescent-blue birds with dark faces and high-pitched, squeaky calls. The Long-tailed Glossy Starling has a long tail and wide wings, whereas the Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling has a shorter tail and more pointed wings. Starlings tend to hang out in groups and forage on the ground. Their calls are a fixture of Tendaba Camp in Kiang.

Long-tailed Glossy Starling: Ian Haight

Long-tailed Glossy Starling: Ian Haight

Northern Red Bishops: Small, puffy, red and brown birds that are commonly seen during the rainy season. The males and females have pale-brown bellies and speckled-brown backs. However, during the rainy season the males put on a bright red coat with a black mask and black belly. Village boys once told me that Fulas call them “flying tomatoes.” Gambians do not like these birds because they eat the coos off the stalks in the fields. Towards the end of the rainy season, villagers will send their children off to the fields to bang on drums and make noise in order to scare the Red Bishops and Weavers away from the coos and maize. The Northern Red Bishop males have a bizarre display where they fly using short bursts of wing beats, keeping their bodies vertical while emitting a series of chirps. On other occasions I have seen males go darting after females, chasing them in an incredibly acrobatic fashion: like two cars on a roller coaster rail.

Northern Red Bishop:

Weavers: Another one of the most common birds in The Gambia. They are easy to identify by their typically yellow color and dark green or black heads. Weavers tend to mass together in large groups, chirping and calling out loudly; creating a cacophonous racket. Telling the differences between the many different kinds of Weavers is very challenging. This is not helped by the fact that groups and colonies of Weavers can contain many different species. Village Weavers and Yellow-backed Weavers are the most common kinds. They look very similar; though Village Weavers tend to have red eyes and a black head with a brown patch on the back while Yellow-backed Weavers have much clearer and simpler black mask. During the rainy season the Weavers gather in huge colonies on trees, sometimes right in the center of villages. They make so much noise that some villages have the young men try to scare the Weavers away. The birds weave incredibly elaborate nests out of grass, sticks, and whatever else they can find. The nests resemble large, stomach shaped baskets with the entrance hole on the bottom. The males weave the nests, often while hanging up-side-down and simultaneously emitting loud calls. The males must prepare the nests so that the females can inspect them. A female will only mate with a male and lay her eggs in his nest if she thinks it is a good looking nest, so there’s a lot of pressure on the male birds to weave a good looking home. During the first weeks of the rainy season you can sit and watch the male Weavers as they fly down in large groups to the ground, rip up long blades of grass, and fly back up into the trees to begin weaving their nests.

Village Weaver: Ian Haight

Village Weaver nest: Ian Haight

Red-billed Firefinches: Firefinches are some of the smallest birds in The Gambia. They tend to be a dull, uniform red color though the females are browner. They forage on the ground in small groups, never standing still for more than a millisecond. Firefinches are constantly emitting soft little chirps, flicking their tails, hopping around, and looking around: like they are perpetually nervous. That being said, they are also some of the tamest birds in The Gambia. You can walk right up to them and they will not move or fly away until you are almost within arms reach of them.

Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu: These little birds are the same shape and size as Firefinches, but they have brown backs, light brown bellies, and are otherwise baby blue. The males have bright red cheeks, giving the impression that they are very embarrassed. Cordon-bleus tend to mingle with Firefinches and are just as tolerant of human proximity.

Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu:

Those are only a few of the Gambian birds I wanted to make note of. There are so many birds that are not mentioned here. Even after three years of bird watching, there are also still many birds that I never saw or only saw on one or two occasions. If you are curious about any of these birds or would like to see more photos, please visit the websites listed near the photos in this blog entry. If you ever find yourself in The Gambia, I strongly encourage you to grab a pair of binoculars and go out for a walk. There are birds everywhere and you will almost always see something amazing.

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