16 December 2011

More Birds of The Gambia

While the birds we encountered in The Gambia were not generally as colorful as those in Ecuador, they were certainly no slackers! Prior to our trip, one of the bird species that I was hoping we would see and get some good photo ops was an Abyssinian Roller. We saw this species frequently throughout the trip, but never where I had a reasonable opportunity for good photos. Finally, as we were headed back to the coast from our upriver sojourn, we were just passing through a small village when one of our group spotted this roller sitting near the road on a corn stalk. The bird was very accommodating and I took dozens of shots out of the mini-bus window. Below is one of them and I'm pleased with it!

On a four hour boat trip we took down the Gambia River, there were quite a few photo opps that we didn't get on our land excursions. One of them was this African Fish Eagle. It looks much like our Bald Eagle but with white extending down into the chest area.

While not overly colorful, the Egyptian Plover is a highly sought after species because of its rarity. Its lack of bright colors is more than made up for by its very regal appearance.
These Little Bee-Eaters provided a double thrill for me. Not only were they beautiful little birds, but one held a dragonfly in its bill for this shot, so it "fed" another of my passions.
Northern Red Bishops were rather common in agricultural and grassland habitats and males were often seen perched high up on the end of a grass stem.

Every once in a while, one of our "eagle-eye" guides or tour group members would spot one of the small, terrestrial kingfishers sitting in some undergrowth. These low light conditions made for difficult photography but I lucked out with this shot of a Pygmy Kingfisher. They are not much bigger than a sparrow, except for their head and large bill.
 The Red-billed Firefinch was fairly common but still a beautiful sight to behold!
Another common species which we saw most every day was the Red-cheeked Cordon-Blew. I took lots of shots of these trying for a good one.
As a group, the Bee-eaters were certainly my favorite. Although they were not easy to get good pictures of, this Red-throated Bee-Eater posed for us while we were on a boat trip though some mangrove marsh habitat.
Another of my target birds for the trip was the Yellow-billed Oxpecker. We did not see any of them until our inland excursion, but saw several in the cattle raising areas. This bird frequents native livestock a eats ticks and other insects off the back of these animals. This one is on the back of a cow, but we saw others on horses.
Northern Carmine Bee-eaters breed north of The Gambia up to southern Europe. We were fortunate to find a large group of them after no luck on our first attempt. They certainly are one of the most striking species we encountered on our trip.
The full repertoire of colors on this Scarlet-chested Sunbird are not visible in this image, but it was none-the-less quite a neat species, showing its hummingbird like flower feeding and iridescent feathers.
These birds are not colorful but their look is surely unique with the yellow eyes and white crest - White-crested Helmet-Shrike.

So there you have a sample of some of the more colorful birds of The Gambia. I'll follow with just a few more of some of the better bird images that I was lucky enough to get on this trip. And there are also a few images of native mammals that I'll share with you on a later blog.

12 December 2011

Birds of The Gambia

For a country of its small size, The Gambia has a great diversity of birds, with about 580 species having been found there. Besides the endemic and mostly non-migratory species also found in other areas of Africa, winter migration out of Europe and Asia brings added diversity for part of the year. Some of the families
of birds we observed there are the same as those here in North America, and other are quite different from what we are familiar with. The African Gray Hornbill - below - is similar to some birds south of the US/Mexico border, but, for sure, nothing like anything we see here in Montana.

The Sunbird Family, represented here by this Beautiful Sunbird, seem to be the ecological equivalent of our hummingbirds. They are most often seen feeding on flowers. And they are every bit as beautiful as our hummers.
There are about a dozen species of doves and pigeons in The Gambia, many of which are more colorful than the ones we see here. This Bruce's Green Pigeon is an example of that.
There is about 8 species of Kingfishers and they can be beautifully colored. Several are mostly terrestrial and must feed mostly on insects.  This Giant Kingfisher is really huge for such a bird but not quite as colorful as a few of the other species.
The largest Heron in the world, the Goliath Heron, resides in the mangrove swamp habitats of the lower Gambia River, and is usually solitary.
Hamerkops are an odd looking sort of bird that we saw rather commonly in wet habitats. It is said that this bird builds among the largest nests (in trees) of any bird in the world.
There are no really vibrant colors on this Laughing Dove, but the pastels combine to make it very attractive.
Namaqua Doves don't have much for color but their black face and bib certainly set them apart from the others.
There were many Vultures in The Gambia and about six or so species. The Palm-nut Vulture was the most striking of the group but certainly not a crowd favorite.
The Corvids - crows and jays - were not well represented. However, the Pied Crow (below) certainly was abundant, especially in the coastal areas. The only other Corvid we saw were Piapiacs which were often found in association with livestock.
It is not difficult to figure out how this Red-billed Hornbill got its name. As with the other hornbills, this species was relatively abundant and we saw them every day of the trip.
The above series of images gives you a small sample of some of the bird species we encountered. But they are certainly do not represent the most colorful ones we were fortunate to see. Stay tuned for more of "The Gambia Experience".

04 December 2011

The Gambia: The Banjul Ferry

For the most part, the highway/road system in The Gambia is reasonably good, especially in the coastal area. However, since the country is so narrow, there are only two main roads heading inland, one north of the river and one on the south side. Our itinerary for our tour included five days/four nights in locations up to perhaps 200 miles inland. Given the fact that the north highway is the best option for heading inland, we would have to cross the mouth of the Gambia River to the town of Barra to take this route. And so begins a VERY interesting morning ferry ride across this 3-4 miles body of water.

There was no guarantee that an early arrival at the ferry terminal would ensure that our mini-bus would be able to make in on board because of the long lines of vehicles that form extremely early. So our enterprising guides and driver arranged to have our bus take the ferry the previous evening, and then the driver would sleep in the bus and wait for our arrival the next morning. So very early on the appointed morning, we - and our luggage - were were transported to the ferry terminal on another mini-bus and dropped off so that we could walk on to the ferry. On our arrival at the terminal about 6:30am, there were already lines of vehicles waiting and throngs of other folks waiting to load on one the the several
 ferries that make the run. As we departed our bus, our guides seemed to have some "pull" with the local enforcement folks and we were allowed to move closer to the gate that held the vehicles and people at bay.

We were warned beforehand to be careful of pick pockets, but in the mass of pushing and shoving people, that was difficult and one of our group had some money picked from his pocket.

On the ferry, we made it to the third tier where the crowding was not too bad, and  we had a good view of the boat and surroundings.

Passing by other ferries, we got a good view of the crowds of people that they carried. Also, it appeared that there was another type of ferry service that some of the residents used. These were large pirogue type boats that were the same type used for fishing and other purposes. They were no less crowded that our large ferry boats.
The trip across the river mouth was uneventful, although thoughts of what a rouge wave washing over the un-gated bow of the ferry might due to its seaworthiness did enter my mind. And looking around the ferry did not reveal any obvious,  readily available store of life jackets.

The process of disembarking the ferry at the Barra terminal was not nearly as chaotic as the boarding process.
 It was interesting to note that there was a flock of 50+ sheep waiting to be loaded on the ferry for the return trip to Banjul.
 Our mini-bus was waiting for us several blocks away and our luggage that had been loaded on a large cart made the trip with no problems. 

The streets of Barra were quite crowded with vehicles and people and we were inundated with peddlers and a few beggars while we waited for our luggage to be loaded on the bus.

But it didn't take too long to get out of town and on to the relatively good highway with little traffic. While this ferry experience was a bit unnerving for some, it was one of the more memorable aspects of our travel in The Gambia.

After a long day of travel and birding, we had one more ferry to take to an island where our lodging for the next two day was located. It was a two-vehicle ferry and posed no problems.
In Montana, we still have several Missouri River ferries that are even smaller. 

30 November 2011

The Gambia-West Africa: A Travel & Birding Diary

The Gambia, located along the west coast of the "hump" of Africa, is the smallest country on the mainland of that continent. It is about the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island, with a population of about 1.7 million, and is less than 30 miles wide at its widest point. In the top image, note the mostly yellowish cast to the Sahara Desert area. The Gambia lies just to the SW of the desert,  along the west coast. It is surrounded by Senegal. In the lower image, The Gambia is outlined in yellow in the center of the image.


The country was declared independent from the UK in 1965. The coastal city of Banjul is the capitol, and English is the official language, although other native languages commonly spoken include Mandinka, Wolef and Fula.

Historically, this part of Africa was one of the major centers of the slave trade. The Portuguese were among the first of the slave traders beginning in the 16th or 17th centuries, and the British gained control in the mid to late 1700's. However, the British abolished slavery in 1807 and established military outposts in this area after that date to enforce the abolition.

Today, the economy is dominated by agriculture, with peanuts being one of the major export products. Tourism and commercial fishing are other major industries. Many western Europeans spend their holidays here soaking up the sun and heat on the great coastline beaches. 
The Gambia River runs the length of the country and is the primary geographical feature in this country where the highest elevations are no more than about 4-500 feet above sea level. Because of these low gradients, the rive is affected by tides and salt water up to 100 miles inland. But it is a beautiful river with much mangrove habitat in its lower reaches and abundant wildlife throughout.

In blog post to follow this one, I will provide more specific detail and images on the cities, people, birds, other wildlife, an exciting ferry ride, and other subjects I noted on my recent trip to this interesting country.

10 August 2011

The Eyes Have It!!

One of the neatest components of dragonfly anatomy is their eyes. Depending on the species, each eye may have several thousand to perhaps more than 10,000 individual lenses. No wonder they are so adept at avoiding my attempts to catch them with my net! I would guess that it is not known whether or not their brains integrate the view from these many lenses into one image or if they see multiple images that aid them in tracking and catching the other insects that they pray upon.

They eyes are very large and totally dominates their "faces". In damselflies, the eyes are separated and "barbell" like in form like on this Sedge Sprite.The eyes of most dragonfly species as - opposed to damsels - almost touch each other on the top of the head as in this White-faced Meadowhawk. Color ranges from dark brown - almost black - on some species to almost a rainbow of colors on others like this Rainbow Bluet. My favorites eyes of all of the different groups of dragonflies are the "Emeralds". There is no doubt how this group got its name. The extent of the emerald color seems to depend on the angle at which the eyes are viewed. That beautiful green color is visible even when they are flying nearby. When they are newly emerged, eye color seems to be a duller, more "milky" color as with this female Mountain Emerald. The Emerald group, however, does not have a monopoly on beautiful green eyes as is evident in this Gilded River Cruiser. If you click on this image to enlarge it, you can see the pattern of the many tiny lenses. So the next time you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to view or photograph one of these fascinating insects, take a good look at the eyes. They are truly amazing and colorful organs!