After a freezing departure from Bristol yesterday, it was a pleasure to wake up this morning to Atlantic breakers washing the west African shoreline and temperatures in the mid-20s.
No time to admire the lanner falcons and black kites wafting in the warm breeze over the beach though, as I had an appointment to keep with our guide Solomon Jallow. Solomon is one of The Gambia’s best birders and leads tours from all over the world to see his country’s wonderfully rich birdlife, including hornbills, parrots, rollers and kingfishers. If he was surprised to hear our request to see comparatively drab species such as whitethroat and our quest for the day, willow warblers, then he was polite enough to smile broadly and give us the benefit of his huge knowledge.
Why The Gambia? Mainly because it’s not just a haven for resident birds, but at this time of year you can see all the songbirds that in a few months time will be swarming in the skies above Britain. It’s also the perfect time to see them in breeding plumage before they set off for the UK and the rest of Europe.
We made our first stop at the Tanji reserve, north along the coast road towards the capital, Banjul. A short drive through Tanji village, where the market reeked of dried fish, and there was the reserve, sandy and flat and covered in scrub and taller acacia trees where our warblers lurked. There are iridescent sunbirds in every bush, and even better, my first target bird, a whitethroat skulking in a patch of gingerbread fruit trees.
But the biggest surprise was a pulse of nightingale song from deep in an acacia thicket… so they do sing in Africa in winter! We even managed to get a recording to prove it, but why are they singing here in Africa? We always thought it was a territorial song linked to habitats in the UK so why are they wasting energy by singing out here? If you get the chance to listen to the next programme on Tuesday at 11.00 am, we will try to answer these questions.
No willow warblers at this particular location, but Solomon like a challenge and came up trumps again at another seaside woodland just along the coast. In our next report you will be able to hear more on this. All in all, a very successful first day, but our new goal to observe ospreys is set for tomorrow… more then.