BIRD WATCHING IN THE GAMBIA
The Gambia is the smallest country in continental Africa and is entirely surrounded by Senegal apart from a short stretch of coastline where the Gambia River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Despite its small size the “smiling coast of Africa” has a remarkably varied range of ecosystems with rich terrestrial and marine biodiversity. The broad variety of habitats and diverse avifauna makes it a popular destination for eco-tourism and bird watching in particular. The Gambia has an extensive bird list of over 550 species, with resident species supplemented by visiting Afrotropical and Palaearctic migrants at different times of year. The network of coastal lagoons, tidal estuaries and other seasonal water bodies inland along the Gambia River provides important stopover sites for wintering waders and other water birds. Open savannahs and various types of woodland, dry scrub and dune systems areas provide food and shelter for many migrants and resident-breeding species.
Early mornings exploring picturesque surroundings, such as community-protected areas, nature reserves, parks and wetlands, attracts many wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and keen birders from all across the globe in search of the perfect holiday. Eco-tourism provides employment for skilled bird guides in The Gambia and tourism as a whole makes up a large percentage of the country’s economy. In the busy coastal region, an increasing number of younger people are becoming active bird watchers because it can provide a potential job opportunity where, in the winter months at least, many can earn a living. A group called the Gambia Birdwatchers’ Association is the registered body responsible for guiding bird-watching tourists around the country and oversees standards of the guides. Other local guides work in protected reserves that are open to the public and a small entrance fee is collected to help conserve these areas. Sites along the Atlantic coast are visited by large numbers of Palaearctic migrants while offering bird watchers a great introduction into the huge variety of colours and sounds of African birds. Further inland there are many different habitats to explore and find species, such as Egyptian Plover, Goliath Heron, White-spotted Flufftail and White-headed Lapwing, that can be difficult to locate elsewhere in West Africa. Many visitors embark on tours with local bird guides that cover a number of sites across a large part of the country where seeing over 300 species is possible in just a week. Bird watching in The Gambia is always filled with surprises due to the diversity of species and habitat.
BIRD RINGING SURVEYS
Detailed studies of the migratory movements, longevity and demographics of different bird species are necessary for conservation because they allow us to understand their abundance in different natural habitats and identify reasons for population changes. The regular movement of birds around the globe each year is remarkable. However, comparatively little is known about the migration of some endemic African species and the wintering ecology of Palaearctic migrants that undertake long distance migration to escape the harsh winter conditions in Northern Europe. In the southwestern corner of The Gambia near the Senegalese border, the village of Kartong is a hotspot for wintering migrants consisting of a range of freshwater and saline wetlands and extensive dry scrub habitats. The Kartong Bird Observatory was set up by a team of British ornithologists and operates a series of standardized bird ringing sites around Kartong together with support from local conservation groups and the Gambian Department of Parks and Wildlife Management. Since 2010, Kartong Bird Observatory has been researching migrant and resident species through ringing and other survey work and has provided valuable information for conservation with a particular emphasis on the site fidelity and population changes of wintering birds. A unique range of site-faithful migrant birds has been recorded at Kartong and, in early 2018, the site produced the first record of Savi’s Warbler for the country. There are many other important records continuing to be discovered through colour-ring sightings and ringing studies. Having worked with the Kartong Bird Observatory since it was founded, I now help run the bird ringing effort with visiting ornithologists from different European countries and have learnt a huge amount about identifying, ageing and measuring Afrotropical and migrant bird species.
The waters off Kartong are rich in fish and the coastal locations serve as an important stopover and wintering site for many migrant wader, gull and tern species. One of my roles is to undertake regular surveys of the beach and estuary sites, recording numbers of waders and seabirds as well as documenting any colour-ring sightings I observe. The range of colour rings seen on birds from different locations across the Northern Hemisphere is particularly amazing and in the last couple of months I have, amongst others, recorded Lesser-crested Terns from Libya, Lesser Black-backed Gulls from Norway, France and Finland, Sandwich Terns from Netherlands, Ireland and the UK, Caspian Terns from Sweden, Audouin’s Gulls from Spain and Kentish Plovers from France.
Through ringing surveys we have made detailed studies of Nightingales wintering at Kartong with many birds seen in consecutive winters and some from known breeding sites in the UK. This year we have started to focus more on intra-African migration and begun collaborating with Samuel Temidayo Osinubi, from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute in South Africa, on movements of kingfisher and cuckoo species.
Protecting birds is challenging in rapidly developing parts of West Africa and especially so for migrant species that do not stay within protected areas. Habitat degradation and disturbance due to human encroachment and exploitation, as well as factors such as climate change, has become a huge global concern. If we can acquire a greater understanding of the ecology of different migrant species we can make a big difference in protecting more habitat and important wintering sites. As part of an international collaborative conservation effort, information from survey work can be used to assess the site fidelity, breeding productivity, winter survival and longevity of different bird species. Let’s protect and conserve our fragile natural habitat for future generations.