Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Birding on Gambian Maybe Time



"I took off for a weekend last month just to try and recall the whole year.  All of the faces and all of the places, wondering where they all disappeared." ... Jimmy Buffett (of course)

 The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, is the home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and the Prime Meridian of the world.  A meridian is a north-south line selected as the zero reference line for astronomical observations.  The line in Greenwich represents the Prime Meridian of the World - Longitude 0º. Every place on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line. The line itself divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth - just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres.

In 1884 the Prime Meridian was defined by the position of the large “Transit Circle” telescope in the Observatory’s Meridian Building. The transit circle was built by Sir George Biddell Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, in 1850. The cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the Transit Circle precisely defined Longitude 0° for the world. As the earth’s crust is moving very slightly all the time the exact position of the Prime Meridian is now moving very slightly too, but the original reference for the prime meridian of the world remains the Airy Transit Circle in the Royal Observatory, even if the exact location of the line may move to either side of Airy’s meridian.

Since the late 19th century, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich has served as the reference line for Greenwich Mean Time. Before this, almost every town in the world kept its own local time. There were no national or international conventions which set how time should be measured, or when the day would begin and end, or what length an hour might be. 

Greenwich Mean Time is represented by the acronym GMT and it turns out that the African nation of The Gambia is not only in the GMT time zone but there GMT has a special meaning because in The Gambia GMT also means “Gambian Maybe Time.”  

Imagine island time.  Now imagine island time on steroids and remove the island, and that is a succinct definition of Gambian Maybe Time.  The Jimmy Buffett song “Christmas in the Caribbean” contains the verse “We don’t live in a hurry, send away for mistletoe.”   Jimmy could have very correctly written that verse about The Gambia. 

Things happen when they happen in The Gambia (and before we go any further I don’t have a clue why Gambia is called “The Gambia.”  It just is).  A scheduled meeting at 9:00 a.m. might be put off a day because someone’s neighbor’s second cousin was in the hospital.  Changing money at a foreign exchange office might not happen because “well, we took all the currency to the bank already.  Leave your money with us and come back tomorrow and we will have the currency then.”   I don’t think so!  A menu of 20 items may have only one thing available because someone forgot to go to the market.  Power may go out five or six times a day for no apparent reason other than it hadn’t gone out in an hour or so. You can be the only person in a restaurant and order a chicken sandwich and it takes an hour for it to arrive.  You begin to wonder if they had to freshly kill the chicken for you.  It is all very predictable.  It’s all very survivable, and it’s all very Gambian.  And nothing is more Gambian than Gambian Maybe Time.  After I spent my first 3 weeks in Costa Rica long ago I came home with the belief that it should be a requirement of continued American citizenship to have to travel for 2 weeks in an alleged Third World country.  It would open everyone’s eyes and rest assured, the latest antics of the Kardashians would be the furthest thing from your mind.  Ten days in The Gambia would be a good start on that travel requirement.

I spent 10 days on Gambian Maybe Time as my annual birthday present trip to myself to some place new.  This year I chose The Gambia and nearby Senegal and the countries were the 110th and 111th countries that I have visited worldwide.  My world bird list was just short of 6,000 species and I wanted the 6,000th species to be an African bird and travel to The Gambia is easy and relatively close and I chose it as my birthday gift to myself.  Not only is The Gambia the smallest nation on the African continent, it absolutely drips with birds.


As with almost every British birder who has ever visited The Gambia I made my reservation through The Gambia Experience, a highly efficient and extremely helpful tour operator based in the UK.  Further because there are hundreds of trip reports from The Gambia available at places like www.surfbirds.com and others I am not going to write a traditional trip report. Suffice it to say that the birds I saw were all regularly recorded in the exact same locations mentioned in any of 100 earlier reports. 


I reached Banjul International Airport after a 6-hour flight from London Gatwick on Monarch Airlines, a UK-based sort of scheduled airline that does a lot of charter flights.  It was a fully-packed 757 with excellent service.  Our route of flight took us south over the Bay of Biscay to Spain, across the Iberian peninsula to the Mediterranean at Malaga, Spain (from which I flew to Africa on my first ever trip to the Continent).  We made African landfall over Tangiers, Morocco, then south over Casablanca, past the High Atlas Mountains and then across Western  Sahara, Mauritania to Dakar, Senegal before touching down on time in Banjul.  From the air Mauritania appears to be one huge sand box!

My first Gambian bird was a Hooded Vulture seen at about 3,000 feet above the ground on approach to the Banjul airport.  If you travel to The Gambia and do not see a Hooded Vulture it can only be explained by your not having opened your eyes once during your entire stay!

Hooded Vulture is abundant and conspicuous in The Gambia

I stayed at the Senegambia Beach Hotel because of the recommendations of almost everyone else who has stayed there.  Its big draw is the bird-filled 20 acre garden that surrounds the hotel grounds and this hotel is highly recommended for that reason. 

Most days I was out in the field around sunrise (6:30 a.m.) and stayed there until about 11:00 a.m. after which is was way too hot to breathe let alone look for birds.  After an afternoon siesta somewhere I would return to the field about 4:00 p.m. and stay out until 7:00 p.m. or so.  I lost only one day to “Banjul Belly” which in Mexico is known as “Montezuma’s Revenge” and almost everywhere else is known simply as “I have the shits.”  The weather was incredibly hot and I was told this wasn’t even the hot part of the year.  Imagine a Florida afternoon in August and then increase the heat index by ¼ and you have an approximation of the intensity of the heat.  Banjul lies at the same latitude as Bridgetown Barbados or San Salvador, El Salvador.  Despite that distance from the Equator (13 degrees north) I have never been hotter anywhere.  You know that it’s hot when you drink 4 liters of water and never even think about urinating!



A view of the ocean and the African Sand Palm forest at the south boundary of the Bijolo Forest Park


My 10-day itinerary follows.

Tuesday           October 29      Flight from the UK to The Gambia.  

Wednesday      October 30      Garden of the Senegambia Hotel

Thursday          October 31      Happy 62nd freaking birthday.  Bijolo Forest Park (also known as the Monkey Park, a 10 minute walk from the hotel).

Friday               November 1     Day trip to Senegal

Saturday           November 2     Abuko Forest Reserve and Kotu Creek

Sunday             November 3     Brufut Woods and the Tanji Preserve

Monday           November 4     A “Lazy Day” on the backwaters of the River Gambia by boat

Tuesday           November 5     Marikissa area south of Banjul 

Wednesday      November 6     Tendaba Camp 160 km upstream from Banjul

Thursday          November 7     Tendaba Camp and return to Banjul

Friday              November 8     Return to the UK in late afternoon
 
One thing that is essential is to hire a good birding guide or birding guides.  It is absolutely suicidal to rent a car and try to drive around The Gambia. There is only one traffic light in the entire country and it does not work.  Road signs are almost completely non-existent and driving on Gambian roads is not for the weak of heart.  Plan on taking tourist taxis or city taxis everywhere you go unless you have prior arrangements with your guide or tour operator.

My species total was 239 of which 119 were life birds and most importantly a Senegal Parrot, appropriately in Senegal on November 1 was my 6,000th life bird. Many trips that travel to The Gambia pick up 300 or so species but I was not that lucky.  For one thing I did not see one single Palearctic migrant songbird. Not one!  All of the bird guides said that they simply had not arrived yet.  Another contributing factor is that I did not make it all the way out to Georgetown where Egyptian Plover winters and where an entirely different suite of birds can be found. 

My life list now stands at 6,072 species and I’m not sure where to go next.  I’d like to try Uganda and Ethiopia and there’s always India.  However the poverty of The Gambia really got to me and I’m a little sour on traveling in developing nation’s right now. (Of course that will change in about a week and planning for next year's trip will begin). The average worker in The Gambia makes the equivalent of $1.25 US per day and with a 1.5 liter bottle of water costing about $0.75 cents US per day, there is not much room for anything in the lives of Gambians. 

One day I met a Muslim man who did not own any shoes.  I gave him an extra pair of flip flops that I brought with me and when I handed them to him he said “You are a very good man.  I will pray for you and Allah will smile kindly on you.”  His was typical of the attitude and outlook of almost every Gambian I met.  Travel through 111 countries worldwide now has taught me one very important lesson.  The richest people on earth are those who have nothing.  Most Gambians are that sort of rich and it’s probably because of Gambian Maybe Time not forcing them to exert themselves too much in the baking sun.

My trip list of birds follows.  Its taxonomy and phylogeny follow Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World. 


DUCKS, GEESE, AND WATERFOWL
White-faced Whistling-Duck
Comb Duck

NEW WORLD QUAIL
Stone Partridge

PHEASANTS, GROUSE, AND ALLIES
Ahanta Francolin
Double-spurred Francolin

GREBES
Little Grebe

FLAMINGOS
Greater Flamingo

STORKS
Marabou Stork

CORMORANTS AND SHAGS
Long-tailed Cormorant

ANHINGAS
African Darter

PELICANS
Great White Pelican
Pink-backed Pelican

HAMERKOP
Hamerkop

HERONS, EGRETS, AND BITTERNS
Gray Heron
Black-headed Heron
Goliath Heron
Purple Heron
Great Egret
Intermediate Egret
Western Reef-Heron
Black Heron
Cattle Egret
Squacco Heron
Striated Heron

IBISES AND SPOONBILLS
Sacred Ibis
African Spoonbill

OSPREY
Osprey

HAWKS, EAGLES, AND KITES
Black-shouldered Kite
African Harrier-Hawk
Palm-nut Vulture
White-headed Vulture
Hooded Vulture
Rueppell's Griffon
Beaudouin's Snake-Eagle
Brown Snake-Eagle
Banded Snake-Eagle
Long-crested Eagle
Lizard Buzzard
Dark Chanting-Goshawk
Shikra
Red-thighed Sparrowhawk
Black Kite

RAILS, GALLINULES, AND COOTS
Purple Swamphen

FLUFFTAILS
White-spotted Flufftail

THICK-KNEES
Senegal Thick-knee

PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS
Black-headed Lapwing
Wattled Lapwing
Common Ringed Plover

JACANAS
African Jacana

SANDPIPERS AND ALLIES
Common Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Common Greenshank
Marsh Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper
Common Redshank
Whimbrel
Black-tailed Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Ruff
Curlew Sandpiper
Little Stint

PRATINCOLES AND COURSERS
Collared Pratincole

SKUAS AND JAEGERS
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger

GULLS, TERNS, AND SKIMMERS
Slender-billed Gull
Gray-hooded Gull
Black-headed Gull
Kelp Gull
Gull-billed Tern
Caspian Tern
White-winged Tern
Whiskered Tern
Common Tern
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Lesser Crested Tern

SANDGROUSE
Four-banded Sandgrouse

PIGEONS AND DOVES
Speckled Pigeon
Mourning Collared-Dove
Red-eyed Dove
Vinaceous Dove
Laughing Dove
Black-billed Wood-Dove
Blue-spotted Wood-Dove
African Green-Pigeon

TURACOS
Guinea Turaco
Violet Turaco
Western Plantain-eater

CUCKOOS
African Cuckoo
Klaas's Cuckoo
Dideric Cuckoo
Yellowbill
Senegal Coucal

OWLS
African Scops-Owl
Northern White-faced Owl
Grayish Eagle-Owl
Pearl-spotted Owlet

NIGHTJARS AND ALLIES
Long-tailed Nightjar

SWIFTS
Mottled Spinetail
Little Swift
African Palm-Swift

KINGFISHERS
Malachite Kingfisher
African Pygmy-Kingfisher
Woodland Kingfisher
Blue-breasted Kingfisher
Giant Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher

BEE-EATERS
Red-throated Bee-eater
Little Bee-eater
Swallow-tailed Bee-eater
White-throated Bee-eater
Northern Carmine Bee-eater

ROLLERS
Abyssinian Roller
Rufous-crowned Roller
Blue-bellied Roller
Broad-billed Roller

WOODHOOPOES AND SCIMITAR-BILLS
Green Woodhoopoe
Black Scimitar-bill

HORNBILLS
Western Red-billed Hornbill
African Pied Hornbill
African Gray Hornbill

GROUND-HORNBILLS
Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill

AFRICAN BARBETS
Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird
Vieillot's Barbet
Bearded Barbet

HONEYGUIDES
Lesser Honeyguide

WOODPECKERS
Fine-spotted Woodpecker
Buff-spotted Woodpecker
Cardinal Woodpecker
Gray Woodpecker
Brown-backed Woodpecker

FALCONS AND CARACARAS
Gray Kestrel
African Hobby
Lanner Falcon

PARROTS
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Brown-necked Parrot
Senegal Parrot

WATTLE-EYES AND BATISES
Brown-throated Wattle-eye

BUSHSHRIKES AND ALLIES
Brubru
Northern Puffback
Black-crowned Tchagra
Common Gonolek
Gray-headed Bushshrike

CUCKOOSHRIKES
Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike

SHRIKES
Yellow-billed Shrike

OLD WORLD ORIOLES
African Golden Oriole

DRONGOS
Fork-tailed Drongo

MONARCH FLYCATCHERS
Black-headed Paradise-Flycatcher
African Paradise-Flycatcher

CROWS, JAYS, AND MAGPIES
Piapiac
Pied Crow

LARKS
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark
Crested Lark

SWALLOWS
Red-chested Swallow
Pied-winged Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow
Rufous-chested Swallow
Fanti Sawwing

FAIRY FLYCATCHERS
African Blue-Flycatcher

PENDULINE-TITS
Yellow Penduline-Tit

BULBULS
Gray-headed Bristlebill
Yellow-throated Greenbul
Little Greenbul
Common Bulbul

AFRICAN WARBLERS
Northern Crombec
Green Hylia

CISTICOLAS AND ALLIES
Green-backed Camaroptera
Singing Cisticola
Whistling Cisticola
Winding Cisticola
Oriole Warbler
Tawny-flanked Prinia
Red-winged Prinia
Senegal Eremomela

YUHINAS, WHITE-EYES, AND ALLIES
African Yellow White-eye

LAUGHINGTHRUSHES AND ALLIES
Blackcap Babbler
Brown Babbler

HYLIOTAS
Yellow-bellied Hyliota

OLD WORLD FLYCATCHERS
Northern Black-Flycatcher
Swamp Flycatcher
Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat
White-crowned Robin-Chat
Northern Anteater-Chat
White-fronted Black-Chat

THRUSHES AND ALLIES
African Thrush

STARLINGS
Lesser Blue-eared Glossy-Starling
Bronze-tailed Glossy-Starling
Purple Glossy-Starling
Long-tailed Glossy-Starling
Chestnut-bellied Starling

OXPECKERS
Yellow-billed Oxpecker

SUNBIRDS AND SPIDERHUNTERS
Mouse-brown Sunbird
Western Violet-backed Sunbird
Collared Sunbird
Pygmy Sunbird
Green-headed Sunbird
Scarlet-chested Sunbird
Beautiful Sunbird
Splendid Sunbird
Variable Sunbird
Copper Sunbird

WAGTAILS AND PIPITS
Tree Pipit

BUNTINGS AND NEW WORLD SPARROWS
Cinnamon-breasted Bunting

SISKINS, CROSSBILLS, AND ALLIES
White-rumped Seedeater
Yellow-fronted Canary

OLD WORLD SPARROWS
Northern Gray-headed Sparrow
Sudan Golden Sparrow
Bush Petronia

WEAVERS AND ALLIES
White-billed Buffalo-Weaver
Speckle-fronted Weaver
Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver
Little Weaver
Black-necked Weaver
Vitelline Masked-Weaver
Heuglin's Masked-Weaver
Village Weaver
Black-headed Weaver
Red-billed Quelea
Orange Bishop
Black-winged Bishop
Yellow-crowned Bishop
Yellow-shouldered Widowbird

WAXBILLS AND ALLIES
Lavender Waxbill
Orange-cheeked Waxbill
Black-rumped Waxbill
Western Bluebill
Crimson Seedcracker
Red-cheeked Cordonbleu
Red-winged Pytilia
Red-billed Firefinch
Bar-breasted Firefinch
Black-faced Firefinch
Cut-throat
Black-faced Quailfinch
Bronze Mannikin
African Silverbill

INDIGOBIRDS
Northern Paradise-Whydah
Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah
Village Indigobird

Species seen - 239

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