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Warbler Safari... the hunt begins

  • 18 Feb 2008
  • Tags: When to go,
  • Author: Brett Westwood

Over the weekend Brett and our producer Grant touched down in the Gambia on the trail of the exotic African songbirds that will be appearing over Britain in the not very distant future. This is the first report they submitted after hooking up with resident songbird expert Solomon Jallow and contains a small revelation - a singing nightingale.

Brett Westwood and Solomon Jallow in the Gambia

Audio for Warbler Safari... the hunt begins

Brett made this astonishing discovery in the Gambia - a singing Nightingale

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Report information

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.

User comments

Dennis Elphick
Contact point for Slapton Ley colour-ringed Wagtails is There will be up to three rings on each leg and should be identified from top (nearest body) to bottom (foot) together with which leg (left or right) they relate to. Date, name, place, county, postcode (grid ref/co-ords), and circumstances of sighting (eg alive, dead, killed by cat, feeding, etc) are also required. Pied wagtails have been moving back into the UK at Slapton since mid-February on days when the weather has been suitable and Icelandic white wagtails will be moving through during April and May. LOCATION: 50.2700,-3.6337 DATE: Thu, 27 Mar 2008 14:20:26 UTC

Dennis Elphick
Icelandic White Wagtails (Motacilla alba alba), en route to overwinter in Senegal/Gambia, and British Pied Wagtails (Motacilla alba yarrellii), which over-winter in Portugal/Spain, have been caught and ringed with both BTO metal rings (since 2003) and colour rings (since 2005) when on autumn passage through Slapton Ley NNR, South Devon. The colour rings enable birds to be individually identified without the need to recapture them. Colour ringing is proving to be a very successful way of understanding the birds' migrations. Over 500 birds were colour ringed in both 2005 and 2006 and over 300 in 2007. It is planned to individually colour-ring a further 500 birds at Slapton in autumn 2008 . Additionally, it is planned to individually colour-ring birds at Abbotsbury Swannery (Dorset) and East Kilbride (Strathclyde) as part of a co-ordinated effort to increase the sample of ringed birds migrating through the UK in an attempt to better understand these movements. New knowledge is already being obtained from this study and if anyone sees colour-ringed wagtails, I shall be very interested to hear from them. All records will be fully acknowledged. LOCATION: 50.2630,-3.5898 DATE: Tue, 25 Mar 2008 11:52:47 UTC

Where do 'our' Ugandan ospreys migrate to? Do they all go - I have records here in October, but also in July, August, December, February, March (Kenya coast)? We have large numbers of willow warblers here too in the northern winter LOCATION: 0.3241,32.5690 DATE: Sat, 15 Mar 2008 16:49:07 UTC

Anthony Oates
Here in my garden we still have a large number of Bramblings and Sikins, when can they be expected to leave for their summer territories. Also I saw my first Swallow on Monday 18th February. Can anyone suggest why not all the local White Storks don't Migrate? They never look particularly content in cold wind, so there must be some advantage to them staying. LOCATION: 47.1892,-1.6823 DATE: Sun, 24 Feb 2008 07:46:28 GMT

Caroline Dumonteil
Writing to thank you for the nightingale song. For several years I have been listening to this bird singing night after night in the Nievre, Burgundy, France during April and May and possibly a bit of June, in woodland in my garden . The wood runs alongside a canal which itself lies in a river valley, so I was interested in your mention of a creek in the Gambia near this nightingale.I did try to ID the song via the RSPB but their recording was not very like it. The bird you recordingis spot on! Brilliant. It typically sings in two places in the wood during the night so I think of itas defending its territory.Presumably it breeds there in France. I think it unlikely that it would stay there till November. Though there's quite a lot to eat, it gets very cold there in October. How long do chicks take to get big enough to migrate?This email slot is quite intimidating. Anyway,Thanks.Caroline Dumonteil. LOCATION: 48.533298,2.666700 DATE: Fri, 22 Feb 2008 17:41:57 GMT

Albert Yome (GONHS/BirdLife Gibraltar
Migration "on the go" already, but raptors now held back by bad weather LOCATION: 36.1429,-5.3558 DATE: Thu, 21 Feb 2008 19:47:00 UTC
Please can you tell me which birds migrate into this area from overseas during March and April and where best to find them in a built up zone.Thank You LOCATION: 52.4476,-2.1066 DATE: Thu, 21 Feb 2008 17:41:10 UTC

Steve Maxted
Good evening.I was listening to your program this evening about migratory birds, and had to tell you about this...I heard first, then saw, a Whitethroat (male), last Friday. (15th Feb). I have to admit, I was very surprised that they are here already! I live at The Warren, in Folkestone, one of the first places migratory birds tend to appear, and well known to local birders. No more sightings since then, but they are obviously on their way!I shall keep my eyes and ears open, and let you know of any other early arrivals.Thank you all for the excellent program. Radio 4 rules.Kind regards.Steve.Martello Tower No. 1 LOCATION: 51.0811,1.1948 DATE: Thu, 21 Feb 2008 00:00:53 GMT LOCATION: 51.0811,1.1948 DATE: Thu, 21 Feb 2008 00:06:54 GMT

Alison W
I realise we're not in the front line living where we do, but apart from swifts and swallows, lapwings and curlews, what other migrating birds might we expect to see here, and from which directions? LOCATION: 53.7487,-2.0160 DATE: Wed, 20 Feb 2008 20:09:49 UTC

susie deflassieux
We see a lot of Sacred Ibis that are now happily living in the salt pans near Guerande. They seem to find life very agreable here and have no intention of migrating further south to warmer climes. Have any bird watchers seen any Ibis in the Uk yet? The first Ibis escaped from Branfere, an animal Park and bird sanctuary, near Peaule about 20 years ago.There are avocets spoonbills stilts and many more wading birds in and around the Guerande saltpans , and hoopoes and bluethroat visit here in the spring. A joy for all bird watchers! LOCATION: 47.3686,-2.5214 DATE: Tue, 19 Feb 2008 04:47:39 GMT

Paul Storey Londonw11
In your opinion where is the best site on the south coast for migration? And which week would one be most likely to see the largest variety of migrants( weather permitting etc.) LOCATION: 51.500000,-0.116700 DATE: Wed, 20 Feb 2008 17:52:38 GMT

Cyndy Cezay-France-86140
what migrating birds should I expect to see around here ? LOCATION: 46.8799,0.2678 DATE: Tue, 19 Feb 2008 16:48:17 UTC WOtM team: All sorts of migrants pass through France - Painted Lady Butterflies, a variety of songbirds including the Willow Warbler, Nightingale and of course the Swift and the Swallow.

Judith Hawley, London
It was a revelation to me that what I had always thought of as our small brown birds, dull little English creatures, are at the same time African natives, as much at home in Sub-Saharan Africa as in Godalming. I was humbled to discover the limits of my assumptions. LOCATION: 51.416698,-0.566700 DATE: Tue, 19 Feb 2008 11:55:04 UTC

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