As I gaze up at the treetops, Malick, my guide calls me over. I look through the telescope to see the back of a pearl-spotted owlet. It turns its head 180 degrees and two big round eyes stare back at me. A magical moment birdwatching in The Gambia, West Africa.
This small country, just 6 hours flight time from the UK, is an exciting, colourful holiday destination perfect for a winter sun escape with glorious sandy beaches all along its Atlantic coastline. The Gambia is also rich in wildlife, not least the 540 plus species of birds. It’s a fabulous birdwatching destination, equally suited to a holiday for a group of bird enthusiasts, as it is for those not so ornithologically inclined. Whether you are new to birdwatching or an experienced birder new to The Gambia, I hope you find some useful information here that will help you plan a fabulous bird-filled holiday in The Gambia.
Disclaimer: I have visited The Gambia many times over the last 18 years on holiday, volunteering and while working for The Gambia Experience. I now work freelance but was delighted to be invited to return in December 2022 on a bloggers’ press trip funded by The Gambia Experience.
Western red-billed hornbill (Tockus kempi)
The best locations for birdwatching in The Gambia
Most of the hotels in The Gambia are along the coastline just south of the River Gambia, all within easy reach of the following popular birdwatching hotspots.
Abuko Nature Reserve
The Gambia’s first nature reserve, Abuko is a relatively small area of gallery forest and savanna with a network of footpaths and a central pool overlooked by a hide. Here, as well as a wonderful array of birds (270 species have been recorded here), you are also likely to see monkeys including the red colobus monkey as well as crocodiles, lizards and more.
Malachite kingfishers (Corythornis cristatus)
This is a great place to see a variety of owls, woodpeckers, sunbirds and more but it is best known for being home to the long-tiled night jar. Fabulously camouflaged sitting on the forest floor amongst dry leaves, they are hard to spot but once you have seen one it’s surprising how close you can get without disturbing it.
There’s a small pool in the forest where birds gather in the late afternoon from about 4 pm (with a nearby stall selling cold drinks).
Denton Bridge & Lamin Lodge
Explore the mangroves and creeks in a dugout canoe or a larger boat depending on the group size and see spoonbills, pelicans, egrets and herons and if you are lucky, a Goliath heron.
Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) in the mangroves near Lamin Lodge
Tanji Bird Reserve
With a beachside lagoon as well as dry scrubland, mangrove swamps and forest, this reserve is home to a beautiful array of species including waders, gulls and terns, osprey, sunbirds and many migrant species.
If you are staying in the Kotu area, a stroll along the creek is a must. The guides have an office near the bridge over Kotu Stream (see below). Due to its easy access, a stroll along the stream is a great introduction to anyone new to birdwatching.
Once, while staying at Kombo Beach Hotel in Kotu, I had a very busy schedule but wanted to fit in some birdwatching. So, I headed out before breakfast, hired a guide at the BWA office, just for an hour and had a fabulous time photographing three types of kingfishers, whimbrel, little bee-eater, red-billed finch, plantain eater, yellow gonolet, west reef heron, Abyssinian roller, painted snip, laughing dove, village weaver and more. All that in just an hour!
Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)
Bird Watching Association (BWA) in The Gambia
The Gambia’s Bird Watcher Association provides high-quality bird guides. Their main office is in Kotu between Kotu Bridge and the entrance to Sunset Beach Hotel. They also have offices by the Senegambia Hotel in Kololi, Cape Point and Bijilo Forest.
You can book a guide to take you out for two or three hours, a half-day or for a whole day or even a two-day excursion with an overnight stay at Tendaba Camp, two hours up country. I’ve not stayed here but I have heard that while the facilities are basic the camp is clean, the food delicious and the staff very helpful and friendly.
Top Tips for birdwatching in The Gambia
- Always use a registered guide – not only does it help support the local economy, but you’ll also find their local knowledge invaluable.
- Always wear insect repellent. Biting critters are most active at the same time as the birds in the early mornings and evenings. If you are going into the bush, any time of day, be sure to spray around your ankles particularly well. I have some insect-repellent socks, which are perfect for this.
- While sandals are okay for most locations, lightweight walking boots or waterproof trainers are better, especially for the rice fields.
- A hat, sunblock and plenty of water is essential
- A light jacket or jumper in the early mornings is also useful as it can be surprisingly cool.
- Take a good field guide such as Helm’s Birds of Senegal and The Gambia. Note, there is a second edition coming out in July 2023.
Little bee-eaters (Merops pusillus)
My choice of birdwatching guides in The Gambia
While all the guides that you can hire through the BWA are excellent, my preference is Malick Suso, the same bird guide used by the BBC presenter and naturalist, Chris Packham. Malick has over 25 years of experience as a bird guide and he really knows his stuff. Not only is he a superb guide, but he is also great company and very professional. He also has a fabulous telescope that allows you to see the birds up close, even if you don’t bring your own binoculars. I usually use my camera lens instead of binoculars but it’s not as powerful as Malick’s scope.
You can contact Malick on 00 220 992 1720 from the UK or 992 1720, while in The Gambia or by email [email protected]
The pearl-spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum) through Malick’s telescope taken with my mobile phone (a single lens phone works best with the telescope). The other photographs in this post were taken with a Nikon D700 and a 150 to 500mm zoom lens. It’s a rather hefty old beast compared with more recent cameras.
The best time to visit for birdwatching in The Gambia
There are plenty of birds to see year-round in The Gambia but it’s worth keeping in mind that it is very humid in the summer from May to October when it is the rainy/green season. The rain tends to fall in short, heavy showers and mainly at night, so does not have a huge impact on holiday makers in the coastal areas, however, untarmacked roads further afield and footpaths can get very muddy.
On the plus side, May to September is the breeding season for many birds. This is when they are at their most active, most vocal and most beautiful in their breeding plumage.
From the end of October, the first migratory birds start arriving.
Most people prefer to visit in the dry season from November to March, although November is still quite humid.
January to March is the best time to see raptors.
I have found April and even May is still a good time to visit. I have found that while it was very hot when I visited in May there was no rain and even in June I’ve seen little rain.
Any time of year can get very hot around midday and as the birds are most active early in the morning and in the evening these cooler times are perfect for birdwatching.
The best hotels in The Gambia for birdwatchers
Most of the hotels in The Gambia are within easy reach of some great birdwatching locations by taxi but there are a few that are particularly popular with birdwatchers as the birds are right on your doorstep.
Mandina Lodges, Makasutu Forest
Mandina Lodges, hidden way in a sacred forest on a tributary of the River Gambia, is a beautiful location for birdwatching as well as for wildlife watching in general. There’s a troupe of some 200 baboons that I have seen every time I’ve visited or stayed here.
If you are staying at Mandina Lodges, you will be assigned a local guide when you arrive, who will take you out each morning before breakfast (and sometimes again late afternoon) for either a trip in a canoe along the river or a walk through the forest.
If you visit for the day, a guide will also take you for a walk through the forest and out in a canoe. This is usually followed by lunch and a cultural show.
Above: A tributor of the RIver Gambia through the mangroves of Makasutu Forest, below: the floating River Lodges at Mandina Lodge in Makasutu Forest.
Choose from a floating river lodge or one of the colourful Jungle Lodges or splash out on their stilted lodge for something really special. Waking up here just before sunrise and listening to the dawn chorus is a truly magical experience. You can read about my first overnight stay here, A night on the river in Makasutu Forest.
Staying at Mandina costs around £1,500 to £2,000* per person per week including return flights, luggage and transfers, half board, and the services of a local guide It’s a good option for combing 3 or 4 nights here with another hotel for a twin-centre holiday.
Bakotu Hotel, Kotu Beach Resort
Bakotu is a more budget-friendly option in Kotu Beach Resort. The rooms are in single-storey buildings dotted around the pretty garden next to Kotu Stream, a popular birdwatching location. There’s even a large decking area in the grounds, raised up above the creek from where to watch. the birds.
Bakotu Hotel costs about £1,000* per person for 7 nights including return flights, luggage and transfers, on a bed & breakfast basis.
Sunset Beach, Kotu Beach Resort
Nearby Sunset Beach Hotel by the mouth of Kotu Stream, is another popular choice with birdwatchers with the added advantage of being right on the beach.
Staying at Sunset Beach costs from about £1,200* per person for 7 nights on a bed & breakfast basis including return flights, luggage and transfers,
Tanji Bird Reserve Eco-Lodge
In the heart of Tanji Bird Reserve, this small lodge with just four rooms overlooks a sandy beach, is a basic, yet idyllic base for birdwatching in The Gambia. The lodge is an eco-friendly, community project, run by local villagers and has no running hot water, no fans or air-conditioning.
Staying at Tanji Bird Reserve Eco-lodge costs from £925* per person for 7 nights on a bed & breakfast basis including return flights, luggage and transfers,
With its spacious grounds, this beachside hotel in Kololi is another option with many birds and sometimes monkeys visiting the gardens. Every day at 11.30 am the local bird guide feeds the vultures. It’s a spectacular sight and non-residents are welcome.
Staying at Tanji Bird Reserve Eco-lodge costs from £919* per person for 7 nights, on a bed & breakfast basis including return flights, luggage and transfers,
Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) in the gardens of The Senegambia Hotel
For a further choice of hotels, read My guide to the best hotels and resort areas in The Gambia.
*For more information about specifc hotels, up-to-date prices and availability, visit The Gambia Experience.
Organised group excursions for birdwatching in The Gambia
There are a variety of group excursions organised by The Gambia Experience that include some birdwatching, yet are perfect for the whole family, even the non-birdwatchers.
Tanji Birding Kayaks & Canoes
One of my favourite excursions involves getting up early so that you can be out in a kayak as the sun rises over the mangroves in Tanji Reserve. You can either paddle yourself or go in a larger canoe with a small group and someone paddling for you. I would recommend going out with the group, as a guide will point out many birds along the way and then ask if you can paddle back in one of the smaller kayaks yourself giving you the best of both worlds.
Heading out along the waterways in Tanji Bird Reserve in a canoe
Lazy Day Cruise
This is a wonderfully relaxing excursion starting at Lamin Lodge near Denton Bridge. Drift along the waterways, spotting birds as you go, in a traditional wooden pirogue. Perhaps try your hand at fishing or swimming from the boat. A light buffet lunch is served before heading back along the tributaries to Lamin Lodge.
Swimming from a traditional pirogue (with an added sundeck) on the Lazy Day Cruise.
Wake up with the birds
While this is aimed specifically at birdwatching enthusiasts, I’ve heard that it is a wonderful experience for everyone. Unlike the other excursions above, I’ve not been on this particular one myself but hope to when I next visit.
Leaving your hotel around 6 am, you’ll be driven to Lamin Lodge (pictured below) where you can enjoy tea or coffee before heading out in a traditional pirogue (a traditional dug-out canoe). Listen to the dawn chorus as the sun rises and see a wonderful variety of birds before heading back to Lamin Lodge for breakfast.
Lastly, take a leisurely walk by the rice fields or through the forest to Lamin Village looking out for more birds, as well as monkeys, along the way.
Lamin Lodge near the village of Lamin
More of my wildlife photography from The Gambia
Above: Giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) by Kotu Stream
Above: Western plantain eater (Crinifer piscator), in Makasutu Forest, Below: dragonfly in Brufut Forest. Does anyone know the species?
Above: Elegant acraea (Acraea egina) in Brufut Forest, below: Green vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus),
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