Trip Report

The Gambia 17th - 24th January 2003

by

David Ferguson, Jim Rose and Mike Collard

We decided we needed something more exotic than our usual week in Lesbos. We picked on The Gambia because it offered a lot of new birds for relatively little money, there was guaranteed sunshine, there was no jet lag, and a number of our friends had recommended it. DF had been there in 1983 - when he believed he was the only birder in the country - but this was the first time JR and MC had visited sub-Saharan Africa, though they had been to Egypt.

Tour operator and airline

We booked with The Gambia Experience who were very efficient although we did not use their services much. We flew with Excel Airlines who arrived on time but there was a short delay on return due to a fuel shortage in The Gambia. It was the usual cramped charter.

 

Money

The Gambian currency is the Dalasi. The rate of exchange varied between 33 (hotel) to 38 (money exchange near the hotel) Dalasis to the pound.

 

Accommodation and food

We stayed at the Senegambia Beach Hotel which has a reputation for being birder-friendly. Although it is large and busy it has a mature twenty acre garden which is full of birds - the speciality is White-crowned Robin-chat which we saw nowhere else. It also has a buffet-style breakfast beginning at 07.00 which means that you are not delayed by Gambian service, which can be slow. If you eat quickly you can be out by 07.15 when it is still fairly dark. You can also eat sufficient to keep you going until dinner.

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Senegambia Hotel front entrance

We were on bed and breakfast so that we did not have to eat in the hotel, although we often did. We also ate at the Kairaba Hotel next door and at the "Jade" Chinese up the road.  Quality varied between good and excellent. The buffet dinner at the Senegambia was 230D (which was marginally cheaper than pre-booking half board). An excellent three-course Chinese with large beers cost 650D for the three of us.

It is worth commenting on the beach. At the Senegambia there has been severe erosion so that the beach is now very steep and narrow. At the Kairaba Hotel next door the situation is even worse - the beach has been reduced to an unsightly concrete barrier. However, a short walk either way takes you away from this.

 

Transport

Apart from our pre-booked day with a guide we used taxis to get about. There are three types of taxi: green tourist taxis which are allowed to park by the hotels and have fixed rates and are expensive, yellow taxis which are a five minute walk away and have negotiated fares, and bush taxis which are minibuses and work like buses. We used yellow taxis. The drivers were used to being asked to collect you at a pre-arranged time and place. They were paid when we were returned to the hotel. Typical fares were 300D to Abuko or Tanji and back for the three of us. Don’t even think about self-drive. There are some very good roads but there are also some very bad ones and direction signs are minimal. Driving through Serekunda is not for the faint-hearted.

 

Climate

It was sunny every day. It was quite cool at the beginning and end of the day but reached about 27 C at mid-day. Nights were relatively cool. The fan in the room maintained a comfortable temperature.  Air conditioning was optional.  It was breezy at the coast which kept the temperature down.

 

Insects

There were a few mosquitoes about when we went hunting for nightjars, otherwise there were very few. However we took malaria tablets (Malarone). We had no side-effects.

 

Guides

We had pre-booked a day out with one of the local guides, Modou Colley, to go to Pirang and the Faraba Bush Track, otherwise we did not use guides (with two exceptions to be related later). The concept of finding our own birds was rather alien to the local guides and we had some difficulty in persuading them to leave us alone. Guides can be found at Abuko, the Kotu Creek bridge and often in the middle of nowhere. The proper guides have badges and ID. Modou Colley - who is very sharp and hard-working - is based at the Senegambia Beach Hotel.

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Modou Colley is an experienced bird guide and comes highly recommended.  He is based at the Senegambia Hotel and you can contact him at there or by Email at mcolley99@yahoo.com

Modou and his colleague Mass Cham can be found, when not birding, in the bird centre in the grounds of the hotel. 4551-BirdCentre-CS.JPG (32386 bytes)

Our experience showed us to be cautious about following anyone who offers to show you an interesting bird (in particular owls) as a tip is expected. While some of the genuine bird guides are obviously very good, there are others that will gladly try and show you around without really knowing anything about birds. On one occasion we told one trainee bird guide who was following us, to leave us alone, after he had followed us half way around Abuko.

Optical and photographic equipment

JR and MC were equipped with Nikon Coolpix 995 cameras while DF had a Panasonic digital camcorder. JR used his Coolpix in conjunction with an Optolyth TBS80 telescope but also used an Eagle-eye 5x lens for birds that were close by. JR took over 950 pictures during the week. MC had the new Swarovski ATS65 scope which disintegrated on the penultimate day. First the swivelling ring went, then the focussing and finally the tripod mounting bracket broke off. In Lesbos, a year ago, the eye-piece fell out, which also happened, on this holiday, to the birder in the next room to ours. This optically superb instrument appears to be mechanically unsound. It would be interesting to know if any other birders have had similar problems.  Further problems were experienced when both Mike's and Jim's Nikon remote camera cords started playing up towards the end of the week.  Initially is was thought to be battery trouble but it now seems they are faulty.

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Day by day

17th January

We landed on time at 15.10, negotiated the melee of the airport, accepted a complimentary drink from The Gambia Experience reps, and rode on the coach to our hotel. Almost immediately we had a good bird - a Lanner Falcon. We saw only one other.

Senegambia Hotel gardens.  Open with plenty of trees, bushes and birds. senegambia garden1X.jpg (29343 bytes)
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The sea-watching area at the Senegambia Hotel.  Best when there are not too many sun-worshippers around! 4352-Senegambia-BeachArea-CS.JPG (16015 bytes)

After checking in, we wandered around the garden. Here were Brown and Blackcap Babblers, Beautiful Sunbirds, Village Weavers, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus and various common doves, including Palm Dove, Red-eyed Dove, Vinaceous Dove and Speckled Pigeon.  A large bird of prey, which flew into a palm to roost, baffled us for a few days until we concluded it was an immature African Harrier-hawk. Offshore were Grey-headed Gulls.

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18th January

We wandered around the garden until vulture feeding time at 11.30 when about 200 Hooded Vultures gather in the garden for bits of chicken skin and other scraps. Interestingly, Cattle Egrets join in the fun while Black Kites wheel overhead but do not land. We had already seen White-crowned Robin-chats, Long-tailed Glossy Starlings, Red-billed hornbills, Piapiacs, Pied Crows, the amazing Yellow-crowned Gonoleks that look as if they had been painted by a child, African Thrushes, Bronze Mannikins and Red-billed Firefinches. Offshore were more Grey-headed Gulls, Caspian Terns, and an Arctic Skua.

After the vultures, we decided to walk to the Kotu Creek area from the hotel and get a taxi back. The Casino cycle track area gave us Little Bee-eaters, Grey Plaintain-eaters and Senegal Coucals - all common birds, as well as a Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Grey Hornbill, a magnificent Blue-bellied Roller, a Grey Kestrel and Tawny-flanked Prinias.  A  juvenile Harrier Hawk  was manoeuvring under the crown of Palm trees and further on a Great White Egret was perched in a Palm Tree. Further on we found a Little Egret perched precariously in a bush.  Offshore we saw a Little Tern and an Osprey.

Right - A fairly typical view of the Casio Cycle Track area but also many areas are more open and scrubby.

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4497-KutoCreekS.JPG (11538 bytes) Left - Kuto Creek from the road bridge.  The bird in the centre is a Western Reef Heron (just in case you were wondering).

Where Kotu Creek ran into the sea there were several Grey-headed Gulls, a number of familiar waders but there was also a dark phase Western Reef Heron. We walked to the bridge where we met a number of guides and birders. Pied Kingfishers were obvious but a Blue-bellied Kingfisher gave only a brief view.  A Broad-billed Roller sat in a tree while Wire-tailed Swallows, Red-throated Swallows and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters flew around. The muddy edge of the creek was home to a group of Senegal Thick-knees. We walked through fields near the creek and encountered Green Wood-hoopoes, Spur-winged Plovers, a pair of Red-necked Falcons, while a pair of Senegal Parrots flew past.  We reached the Kotu Ponds where there were White-faced Whistling Ducks, an African Jacana, a Fork-tailed Drongo and more familiar waders. When we returned to the road we hailed a passing yellow taxi and returned to the hotel.

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19th January

A pair of Grey Woodpeckers at a nest hole outside our room was a surprise while another new bird for the garden was a Purple Glossy Starling. Today would be our first drive away from the hotel - to the Abuko reserve. We hired a yellow taxi and asked for a pickup at 15.00. In the event this turned out to be too early - there was so much to see.

The Abuko Nature Reserve was established in 1967.  The entrance fee was 31.5 Dalasi and is well worth it. 3686 Abuko EntranceX.JPG (29542 bytes)
abuko1X.JPG (39389 bytes) The Crocodile pool.  Here there is an education centre, the upper storey of which, gives good views across the pool.

The Crocodile Pool was quiet as was the walk to the main pool with the hide, except for two Red Colobus Monkeys, which were grooming each other in a tree by the path. At the pool, however, were plenty of birds: Hamerkops, Intermediate and Great White Egrets, Black-headed Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, a Striated Heron, a Pied Kingfisher, a Purple Glossy Starling, African Jacana and a splendid Giant Kingfisher. A Palm-nut Vulture gave us a brief view as it flew through the trees as did an African Pied Hornbill and a Mottled Spinetail.   A short while later MC was very fortunate to see one of Abuko's rare resident species when a Little Sparrowhawk landed briefly near the water before flying off into the undergrowth.  

We tried the first photo hide next to the Viewing Platform Pool. When we peered through the slits pandemonium and confusion ensued as three different raptors flew off in three different directions, each one seen by only one (different) observer. MC had an unidentified large raptor which had been sitting on the mud, JR had what was probably an immature Harrier-hawk while DF saw a Palm-nut Vulture fly off. The Blue-spotted Wood Doves which were present were a bit of an anti-climax after this.  Later in the day we also managed to see the similar Black-billed Wood Dove and another Grey Woodpecker.

We carried on through the gallery forest where we found Black-necked Weavers and Snowy-crowned Robin-chats. At one hot spot we had a Common Wattle-eye, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers, a Yellow-breasted Apalis, a flock of White-crested Helmet Shrikes and a Pygmy Kingfisher. We didn’t know which way to look. Later we saw two Red-shouldered Cuckoo Shrikes.

The terrain became more open and in one bare tree two of us saw a Red-throated Bee-eater. Overhead were Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, a Grasshopper Buzzard, a Black-shouldered Kite and a Booted Eagle. The number of birds that demanded digiscoping and videoing meant that our progress was slow. We were now running out of time so we turned back before we reached the oasis of the animal sanctuary and its lure of cold drinks. Back at the crocodile pool we had one more new bird: Bar-breasted Firefinch which was identified by the guide to another group. The same guide also picked up a Western Bluebill which only MC of our group saw (it was his lucky day). Then JR found a pair of Buff-spotted Woodpeckers for everybody to see.

After a well-earned drink in the beach bar back at the hotel we set off to the rice fields next door. Almost immediately we saw Wattled Plovers and a Harrier Hawk, then a small flock of White-billed Buffalo Weavers. While JR and MC were digiscoping these, DF wandered off and found a small group of rather nondescript warblers dodging about in a weedy area. They were cisticolas, but which one? The video does not match with any of the illustrations in the field guide. At the time of writing they have not been identified (see images on Mystery Bird page). A very obliging Rufous-crowned Roller, a couple of Grey Kestrels, a Black-shouldered Kite and a Double-spurred Francolin completed the list for the day.

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20th January

This was our big day out. We had booked a trip with Modou Colley to Pirang and the Faraba Banta bush track. The scheduled kick-off was 07.30, but at the appointed time, although Modou was there, the vehicle and driver weren’t. It was not until 08.15, after wasting 45 minutes of the best time of the day, that a replacement vehicle appeared, a somewhat battered Nissan Patrol. The time had not been entirely wasted for, while waiting at the front of the hotel, we had identified a Western Olivaceous Warbler and a Blackcap.

Ten minutes along the road and we made our first emergency stop - a Lizard Buzzard perched in a roadside tree. The next new bird was a Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling, but there was nothing else until we reached our first scheduled stop, Mandiba Ba for Hadada Ibis. In the event the ibises turned out to be rather elusive and we only obtained fleeting views. To compensate for this we had a superb view of a Pearl-spotted Owlet while a Long-crested Eagle lurked in a tree. A group of mature trees held a pair of African Golden Orioles and a Violet Turaco while nearby were Black-billed Wood Doves. In the air were a Marsh Harrier, a Shikra and two Dark Chanting Goshawks.

We moved on to Pirang for Black- Crowned Cranes. The birdy area of Pirang is an abandoned shrimp farm which looks like the Gobi Desert divided into squares by banks and dotted with small bushes. Here and there are pools of water. Once again we failed on the target bird but we did see Crested Larks (which after Lesbos we needed like a hole in the head), a splendid male Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, a pair of Plain-backed Pipits, a Zitting Cisticola, a flock of non-breeding Northern Red Bishops, Mosque Swallows, two Little Swifts and 20 distant soaring Pink-backed Pelicans.   Here a Wire-tailed Swallow conveniently perched to allow closer study.  Modou identified two small bullet-shaped birds that whizzed over our heads as Quail Finches but we couldn’t identify them so we didn’t count them.

We tried again for the cranes at a river nearby but failed once more but we did get a good bonus bird - a Beaudouin’s Snake-eagle. Our first impression was that it was a Short-toed Eagle but we were not convinced. We know what Short-toed Eagles look like and, even though they vary quite a bit, they didn’t look like this. We saw a bird with a very dark chest and very white underwings. It obligingly flew over our heads and we obtained a solid ID. We also saw three Yellow-billed Oxpeckers and a White-backed Vulture.

On driving along a typical dirt track Modou suddenly asked the driver to stop as he had seen an African Green Pigeon.  The birds (at least two) were perched fairly well up in a tree with leaves that were virtually the same colour as the bird.  How he managed to see these birds we will never know.  We were suitably impressed.

Right - Pirang.  A low lying area close to the Gambia river.   A disused Shrimp farm provides a "salt pan" type environment.   Nearby Mangroves provide extensive cover for birds, including the Black-crowned Cranes, which we missed.

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Left - The "Bush Track" that runs from Faraba Banta to Jiborah Kuto is largely a fairly open area with scattered trees.  An excellent area for raptors.

To get to the Faraba Banta bush track you have to go through the village of Faraba Banta. As we passed the school every child came rushing out, each wearing a blue and white school uniform, and gave us a deafening greeting. There seemed to be hundreds of grinning and waving kids. This was Modou’s home village which may have had something to do with this amazing welcome.

When we reached the bush track we stopped and Modou began imitating the call of the Pearl-spotted Owlet. This immediately attracted sunbirds - Splendid, Scarlet-chested and Variable. We also saw Bearded Barbet, Northern Black Flycatcher, Green-backed Eremomela, Brubru and Yellow-fronted Canary. We managed to miss Yellow Penduline Tit which Modou saw. Later a Striped Kingfisher gave good views as did a superb Abyssinian Roller.

But we were really after raptors. Grasshopper Buzzards, Lizard Buzzards and Shikras were fairly common and we saw a single Brown Snake-eagle, a Dark Chanting Goshawk and a distant Wahlberg’s Eagle. No Martial Eagles or Bataleurs though.

On the way back, which involved driving on a tarmac road whose pot-holes were so bad that it was easier to drive on the dirt verges, we saw some Namaqua Doves. These were the last new birds of the day. We arrived at the hotel at 18.00 which just gave us time to shower and remove the dust before sauntering up to the restaurant.

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21st January

Our birding in Bijilo Forest, which was a ten minute walk from the hotel. A surprise was a fly-over African Darter. Less of a surprise was a Long-tailed Cormorant flying offshore but only DF saw it; it was the only one of the trip. Also offshore was a distant African Fish Eagle. Among the trees, new birds for the trip were Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Oriole Warbler, Bush Petronia, Heuglin’s Masked Weaver, Black Flycatcher and - best of all - two Green-headed Sunbirds.   A small group of  Little Bee-eaters gave good views as did a Grey Woodpecker and an adult Harrier Hawk, albeit briefly.  There were plenty of small birds around including Beautiful Sunbirds, Red-billed Firefinch and Bronze Mannikin.  A flying francolin was almost certainly a Double-spurred and not the more desirable Ahanta. It had been a hard day’s birding with a distinct lack of activity at mid-day, unlike Abuko which had remained lively all day.

The Bijilo Forest Park (also known as "The Monkey Park") is a short walk from the Senegambia Hotel.  The entrance fee was 31.5 Dalasi. 4883-BijiloEntranceS.JPG (22548 bytes)
4820-BijiloForestS.JPG (21798 bytes) The Bilijo Forest as viewed from the coastal strip.  The scrubby coastal area was excellent for birds.
Typical view from the "Ornithological Path" which runs along the west side of the reserve and was certainly the best area for birds. 4803-BijiloForest-S.JPG (28728 bytes)

Two of the birds we most wanted to see were the two nightjar species that frequent the Casino dunes - Standard-winged and Long-tailed. We had realised the only certain way of seeing these birds was to employ a guide so we went on one of Modou Colley’s regular evening trips.

The birds did not feed like European Nightjars. Rather than flying about catching insects they sat on the ground and only flew up when they saw something edible. The flew very quickly and flight views were very brief and unsatisfactory. However Modou did manage to get his torch onto two Long-tailed Nightjars, on the ground, which gave us good views. Standard-winged was only seen in flight. Only go with a guide who has a powerful torch or you will see very little.

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22nd January

Even before we left the hotel the birding had started.  A Shikra perched conveniently 30 feet above our heads, just outside our hotel room.

We went on another taxi ride, this time to Tanji. The driver ignored the official entrance and dropped us off on the road where we could walk in. This turned out to be a bad move as Tanji is now an official reserve and requires an entrance fee (31.50D) to enter. We discovered this later.

We were in an area of open scrub between the road and the sea. We immediately saw a Lizard Buzzard sitting on a pylon and then a rather distant Montagu’s Harrier. We wandered down to the beach where we found ourselves opposite a sand bar on which sat an assembly of terns. There were Caspian, Royal, Lesser Crested, and Sandwich all displayed like a field guide illustration, plus an Osprey for good measure. As well as the usual Grey-headed Gulls we saw an Audouin’s Gull flying past.

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Back among the bushes we found various sunbirds including Variable, and Splendid, whose numbers increased when two Pearl-spotted Owlets began calling to each other, two Bearded Barbets, a Violet Turaco, a Little Weaver and several Palearctic migrants: Redstart, Western Olivaceous Warbler and Subalpine Warbler. Also seen were a hunting Shikra, a Fork-tailed Drongo, Grey Hornbill and a Senegal Thick-knee which was flushed from under a bush.  Glossy Starlings also showed well at Tanji with Long-tailed, Lesser Blue-eared and Greater Blue-eared.

When we made our rendezvous with the taxi, the wardens of the reserve were present and an argument broke out between them and our driver. It seemed that the driver had tried to help our cause by bypassing the entrance; the rangers took a dim view of this. We paid up then drove the short distance to the Tanji Fish Quay for - we hoped - Kelp Gull. It would have been better if we had been dropped off at the entrance for we had not seen the forest area although we had seen plenty of birds where we were.

Fishing boats at Tanji Fish Quay.  The boats attract large numbers of gulls including Grey-headed, Slender-billed and our quarry, Kelp Gull.

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Laid back life style at Tanji with two guys asleep in the shade of the boat and the man painting the boat talking into his mobile phone!

There was a large raft of gulls just offshore from the quay and we had a tricky job trying to find the Kelp Gulls among the Lesser Black-backed Gulls.   In the end we thought we had found at least four.   Also present among the Grey-headed Gulls were one or two Slender-billed Gulls.  The fish quay was very picturesque with its dhow-like fishing boats. The mediaeval scene of a fisherman painting his boat was slightly spoiled when his mobile phone rang!

We returned to the hotel in time for a lunchtime drink and then, for the only time, we split up. DF was having problems with the heat and decided on an easy afternoon wandering around the hotel garden. JR and MC, meanwhile, would get a taxi to the Hotel Palma Rima and walk along the Casino Cycle Track to Kotu Creek.

The Casino Cycle Track was fairly productive and the wetter areas by the rice fields produced Black Egrets, Intermediate Egrets, and the only Sacred Ibis of the trip. While watching a Black Egret doing its umbrella trick from a track that led across the marshy area, JR and MC were approached by a bird guide who offered to show them around. While not really interested, as soon as he mentioned Greater Painted Snipe, the guide knew he was in a with a chance. While not wishing to grip DF off too severely, JR and MC decided to go with the guide and he duly turned up a super female (the most colourful) which obligingly stayed in full view for a short while.  A Red-chested Swallow perched on wires allowed a better comparison to our own Swallow.  We also saw another Grey Woodpecker, a Black-shouldered Kite and an Abyssinian Roller close to Kuto Creek bridge.

DF promptly returned the gripping off, by seeing a Northern Crombec foraging in the perimeter hedge of the Senegambia Hotel. He then went to the Kairaba Hotel next door where Purple Glossy Starlings were bathing in the lawn sprinklers.

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23rd January

This was our last full day. We would spend it in Abuko which had been so productive a few days earlier. We employed the same driver that took us to Tanji as he was reliable, a likeable character and had a comfortable car.

We reached Abuko shortly after 08.00 where we immediately saw a new bird at the Crocodile Pool, a Little Greenbul which, from its illustration in the field guide, we had voted the most boring bird in The Gambia. Seeing it in the flesh did little to revise this opinion. Of the two Giant Kingfishers on the pipe by the pool, one was beating a rather large fish to death. This went on for some time before they flew off, still having not eaten the fish.

When we reached the viewing platform we discovered, to our surprise, there was quite a different selection of birds: Black Heron, African Darters, Black Crakes. At the photographic hide a Palm-nut Vulture put on a good display.  Further on, in the gallery forest, we came upon one of those hot spots. Within a few yards we saw Yellow-breasted Apalis, Common Wattle-eye and - just a few feet from us - two stunning Western Bluebills, the female of which was voted the bird of the trip. A hybrid Paradise x Red-bellied Flycatcher confused us for a while. We walked beyond the animal sanctuary to the extension where we instantly saw a large dark eagle which turned out to be a Tawny Eagle. Further on, just on the other side of the perimeter fence was a small group of Village Indigobirds.

View along the track that separates the main reserve from the reserve extension.  Here we saw a Tawny Eagle circling overhead.

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At the far end of the reserve extension is this viewing tower.   Not for the faint hearted and it won't win any awards as an example for health and safety!

It was now in the heat of the day and the birds began to slow down. We returned to the gallery forest where we hoped that things would liven up. Three running Stone Partridges helped brighten the day as did a Long-crested Eagle on the mud in front of the photographic hide. The Little Greenbul was still drinking at the Crocodile Pool but otherwise it was very quiet. We returned to the hotel via Serekunda which was an interesting experience with its markets and chaotic traffic.

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24th January

We were due to check out of our room at 12.00 and leave at 14.15 for the airport so we spent the morning wandering round the garden and into the Kairaba Hotel next door, where some of the commoner species,  Bronze Mannikins, Lavender Waxbills and a Yellow-billed Shrike were very obliging.   We managed three new trip birds, a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, two flyover African Spoonbills and - the last bird of all - House Sparrow.

 

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