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Wader Quest Into Africa

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

Having returned from South America with nothing booked for the continuance of our Wader Quest, we thought the easiest next step would be to book a package holiday to The Gambia. A last minute deal was found that was affordable enough and we were on our way.

Birding in The Gambia is a double edged sword. On the positive side there are many beautiful birds that are easy to find, most of the main birding destinations are near to the resorts and the birds, being African, are for the most part pretty spectacular. The down side is that if you are the sort of birder who likes to bird alone, find your own birds and relax in the field, you will not be allowed to do so. There is no law that will prevent you from doing this; it is the constant attention from the local bird guides and everyone else once you’re identified as a tourist that is the problem.

I had visited The Gambia before and knew what to expect, so I decided to arrange for a guide to help us before we even got there. Once you have a guide with you the others leave you alone, but try and step out of the hotel without him or her and you will be accosted at every turn.

Through a young Gambian ex-pat called Seedy Saidy we were introduced to his nephew, Modou Saidy, who has been guiding birders in the country for some time. He met us on our first afternoon and took us for a walk around the local area, which just happened to be the Kotu Bridge area, a local birding hotspot. Our hotel was right on Kotu Creek where it opens into the Atlantic so it was just seconds before we saw our first target species, Spur-winged Lapwing. These noisy, smart-looking birds were pretty much everywhere that there was water.

 

Spur-winged Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

Spur-winged Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

When we arrived at the bridge, we glanced upstream and sitting out in the open was our second target bird, Senegal Thick-knee. This was all too easy! There were other waders there too; Common Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, African Wattled Lapwing, Common Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Eurasian Whimbrel. This of course spurred Elis into action to build on her already considerable library of wader photos.

Senegal Thick-knee, photo by Elis Simpson

Senegal Thick-knee, photo by Elis Simpson

As I was discussing with Modou about what would happen later in the week with, I chanced to look over at Elis who she was beckoning to us to join her. She looked excited so we wasted no time in doing so. She said that there was a large group of lapwings behind the closest patch of mangrove saplings and three of them were yet another new bird for our quest, Black-headed Lapwing. Cautiously we took a look and enjoyed these crested birds, but they were very wary and did not allow close approach from our photographer.

 

Black-headed Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

Black-headed Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

If you are a wader lover and know anything about The Gambia, you will have already put two and two together and worked out what our main target species were to be in the country. Out of a potential list of six, we already had three of them in the first afternoon, but to see any more we were going to have to go ‘up river’.

The three remaining birds were Temminck’s and Bronze-winged Courser, and the icing on the cake, the reason that The Gambia was chosen as a destination, Egyptian Plover. This last species can of course be seen elsewhere, but not within the budget restraints that we had set. Unfortunately, they begin to leave The Gambia early in the year. This proved to be the case for us. We had planned with Modou to see the birds at the Kaur Wetlands, as we were waiting for the ferry to take us to the north bank of the river we heard that a group had reported from there the day before that they had already departed!

This was not looking good. This was an important species and it looked as though our plan was crumbling around our ears. Modou made many calls and eventually spoke to someone who was actually looking at the bird as he conversed on the phone. OK, this was good news. The birds were still in The Gambia, the bad news was they were now at Basse Santa Su twice as far up river and of course to get there was going to cost us extra! What price can you put on seeing a bird like this? We bargained the price down to within our limits and the deal was done.

As we were driving along the north bank of the river we did keep an eye out for birds of course. A sudden shout to stop the car from Modou startled us. We backed down the road until finally Modou told the driver to stop. Modou raised his binoculars and then announced that he was looking at a Temminck’s Courser. I couldn’t see exactly where he was looking so he suggested we all get out of the car to look. Once out of the car the scene did not become any clearer for me. I followed Modou’s directions carefully, but I could not for the life of me see this bird. We were edging down the side of the field when I finally spied the bird loafing in the shade under a very small plant. I got Elis onto the bird.

As we got closer we discovered a second bird, but we were still some way off and the heat haze was not helping. Modou made a wide arc around the field to try and encourage the birds closer which worked but eventually they had had enough and flew to the next field allowing me to see coursers in flight for the first time. Their flight and shape were quite characteristic, providing us with another vital piece of experience. Once the birds were gone from view I started to marvel at Modou’s eyesight – how on earth he had seen this bird from a moving car was beyond me – and made me very grateful that he was with us because, for sure, we would not have seen this bird on our own.

 

Temminck's Courser, photo by Elis Simpson

Temminck’s Courser, photo by Elis Simpson

This turned out to be our only contact with Temminck’s Courser, or any courser for that matter in the Gambia as we never did catch up with Bronze-winged Courser. At that time there was just one thing on my mind, however, and that was getting to Basse to see the Egyptian Plovers.

Following a night in Georgetown we found ourselves arriving at the ferry quay in Basse. No sooner had Omar stopped the car than I was out of it and heading towards the river, the adrenalin was rushing through my veins. This was it! It was make or break time!

“There they are!” I heard Modou call and following his gaze saw not one but two Egyptian Plovers on a large concrete jetty. Relief washed over me. There they were, we had seen them. A bird we had looked at in books for fifty years or so and now we were looking at them in the flesh. Did I say we? I punched the air, did our silly waggle dance much to the amusement of the locals who must have witnessed this scenario a thousand times and then realized Elis was still in the car preparing her camera for action!

On the jetty there was a fisherman, and he was moving around quite a lot, albeit at the other end of the jetty. I was very concerned that these birds could be scared off at any time. Anxiety overtook me again and I urged Elis to hurry. Once she was beside me and looking at the birds too I was once again relieved. She set off to get some photographs of them in the sun. Within a minute the fisherman did exactly as I had feared, walking along the jetty towards the birds. Modou shouted to him to stop, but he did not and the birds flew across the river. As they approached the other bank a few hundred yards away, something changed their minds and they returned to our bank a little further downstream. We went to look for them and soon found ourselves watching them at slightly closer quarters but in the shade, not ideal for photography. Once more a local, going about his business, got too close and they were off again, they flew down river and alighted in the distance on the other side of the river.

Egyptian Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Egyptian Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

I looked back in their direction once I reached the car again and found they had gone. I mused on how close we had come to missing them, but then dismissed all these negative thoughts and beamed like a Cheshire cat.

We enjoyed the rest of our birding in The Gambia as best we could given that we tend to bird alone by preference. The birds were certainly breath-taking at times, but we saw no new waders and left the country with 170 on the list and just one day in the UK to look forward to before our next trip to India was to start.

 –=====–

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAEFlorida, Washington, California the UK, in South America, and Africa.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
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