My partner, Judy, and I traveled to Gambia-Senegal for a bird watching trip from 30 December 2022 to 21 January 2023. We flew from Chicago to Paris and then from Paris to Banjul, Gambia. There is a direct flight from JFK airport, New York to Dakar, Senegal, but we had flight credits on another airline that we had to use before they expired, so we took a more circuitous route. We allowed three days rest and adjustment to the 6-hour time difference before we began our birding tour with our guide. During these three days we did some casual birding to learn some of the more common species in the country. There are many places to stay in the Banjul area, including some fancy tourist-type hotels, which we tend to avoid. We stayed at the Bakotu Lodge for the first three days which had very good accommodations and good birding within walking distance of the lodge. We also allowed three days rest and casual birding once we completed the birding tour before returning home. The last three days in the Gambia we stayed at the Farakunka Lodge which also had very good accommodations and birding nearby.
Since not many Americans go to the Gambia or Senegal to bird, the first question one might ask is “why did we select the Gambia and Senegal for a bird-watching trip?” One reason was we had already birded in east and south Africa and wanted to see different birds in west Africa. The Gambia is a west-African country and is Africa’s smallest country. Despite its small size, over 560 species of birds have been recorded in the Gambia. Due to its geographical location, northern migrants from Europe come to the Gambia in October to spend the winter. Gambia is the first green habitat after the long flight south along the arid coast of northwest Africa. Birds from equatorial areas of Africa migrate to Gambia in June/July to breed there during the rainy season. Although the Gambia does not have any endemic species, it has many unique, birds. The Gambia is a well-known birding destination to European birders and they often visit there. Therefore, the country caters to birders and has many birding tours with very qualified birding guides. Be aware that the Gambia is a cash economy with little use of credit cards outside the metropolitan Banjul area. We had no problems carrying cash for our trip. Best yet, the travel distance is short between the birding sites in the Gambia and Senegal, so you can see many birds without days and days of travel between sites.
Once we decided to go to the Gambia and Senegal, the next big question was who we would hire as our birding guide. We emailed three potential guides we found on the internet. They all responded promptly. After careful consideration, the person we chose was Karanta Camara. We were not disappointed. Karanta knows the birds and bird songs/calls of ALL the birds in the Gambia and Senegal, often identifying them in flight from long distances. He also knows where to find them in the most efficient manner. Being an excellent bird photographer himself, Karanta planned and positioned us so we got the best looks at birds and the best light for photographs.
Karanta was the president of the Gambia Bird Watching Association, so he is well connected with the birding community in the Gambia and Senegal and was always aware of any unusual or rare sightings. He also knew most of the park staff or caretakers of the places we visited so we had easy access to these sites. Karanta made all arrangements for our lodging and meals, for other local guides, had his own reliable vehicle, and provided a driver so he could focus on finding birds, even when we were driving from one site to another. One thing we liked about the itinerary was that we often stayed in a lodge for multiple nights and did day trips from the lodge instead of packing up our gear every morning before we set off birding. Karanta increased our efficiency in finding birds by not spending a lot of time looking for a bird if he knew there were other places we were going that the bird was much more common and easy to find. Karanta was very professional in his emails and communications and was serious about finding as many bird species as he could for us. He was also happy to answer any questions about the country, its people, and culture, which we found very interesting.
The only problem we ran into regarding guides happened when we were on our own before we started our tour with Karanta. An unscrupulous person who called himself a “guide” (Gambians call them “bumsters”) said he would show us a particular owl of interest. He could not find the owl but still wanted to be paid a fee for looking, which we refused to do.
The 14-day birding tour with Karanta was excellent. The accommodations were good, although somewhat basic in some parts of the countries. We loved the Gambian food and have since tried to make some of the Gambian recipes at home. The driver was safety-conscious and drove carefully and always got us to the places we wanted to go.
We visited almost all the birding habitats found in the Gambia and Senegal. From the Atlantic shores, to freshwater wetlands, to the Gambia river and its tributaries, to mangrove swamps, to open grasslands, to farmlands, to dry forests and brushlands, and to Niokolokoba National Park, the largest National Park in Senegal. In total, we saw over 260 species of birds of which 128 were life birds for us. We saw many herons and egrets, kingfishers, doves, shorebirds, raptors, sunbirds, bee-eaters, starlings, four different species of owls as well as many unique birds found in the area. A complete bird list from our trip is attached. Some of the highlights of our trip are described below.
The first three days with Karanta we birded in the Banjul area at places such as Brufut Woods, Abuko Nature Reserve, Tambi Wetlands, the Kotu bridge area, and along the coast and lagoons next to the ocean. Interesting birds we saw in this area were Long-tailed Nightjar, White-spotted Flufftail, Whitefronted Plover, Senegal Thick-knee, White-backed Heron, Hammerkop, Gull-billed Tern, Red-necked Falcon, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Abyssinian Roller, African Scops Owl, Grayish Eagle Owl, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Purple Starling, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat, Splendid Sunbird, as well as many others.
Next, we went to Morgan Kunda Lodge for three nights and visited Farasutu Forest, Kampanti rice fields, Jimmansar Katchan Woods, Baobolong Wetlands, and Farafenyi Woods and Wetlands, as well as other places. Many interesting birds were seen such as Savile’s Bustard, Senegal Parrot, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Four-banded Sand Grouse, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Striped Kingfisher, Pygmy Sunbird, and many others. We also made a trip to the Kaolac area to a roosting site where hundreds of Scissor-tailed Kites came to roost just before dusk. It was an impressive and beautiful sight.
From Morgan Kunda Lodge, we headed east to Georgetown, Basse, and then Wassudu Camp in Senegal, stopping at Bansang for the night. We birded along the way and stopped at Bansang Quarry to see a colony of Red-throated Bee-eaters, and saw many other birds such as Greater Flamingo, Greater Painted Snipe, Temminick’s Courser, Exclamatory Paradise-Wydah, and Sudan Golden Sparrow. We spent two nights at Wassudu Camp and birded around the camp, took a boat tour upriver to see kingfishers, African Fish Eagles, White-headed Plovers, plus many other birds, and spent a day in Niokolokoba National Park seeing Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill and some of the large mammals such as antelope and warthogs. There were many opportunities to see Egyptian Plovers here and we also saw other interesting birds such as Violet Turaco, Adamawa Pigeon, and Grey-headed Kingfisher.
On the way back to Banjul we stopped for a night at Bansang again and then at Tandaba Camp for three nights to bird in that area. We birded around the camp, took a boat trip on the Gambia River and its tributaries, and visited some of the dry forest/bush habitat in the area. We had very good views of the African Finfoot, herons and egrets, cormorants, and many other birds on the boat trip. Other interesting birds we saw in the Tandaba area and on the drive back to Banjul included African Pygmy Goose, White Helmet-Shrike, Collared Pratincole, Banded Snake Eagle, Martial Eagle, and Long-crested Eagle. On the last day of our trip, we returned to the Banjul area and took a boat tour on Kotu Creek where we saw the Giant Kingfisher, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, and other water birds.
In summary, we were very happy with the birding trip to Gambia and Senegal and we were very successful in finding the birds we hoped to see. The Gambian people were very friendly and helpful. The food was great. And Karanta was an excellent bird guide and companion throughout the trip. We would recommend this trip to anyone interested in African birds and would certainly recommend Karanta Camara as a birding guide and as the person to organize the entire trip.
Jerry Bartelt and Judy Sauer
Text pWestern Reef
African Sacred Ibis
African Pied Hornbill
African Gray Hornbill
Western Red-billed Hornbill
Northern Carmine Bee-eater
African Gray Woodpecker
Peregrine Falcon minor
African Golden Oriole