Just Roll With It

Ardent followers of this blog, yes all three of you, may recall a hare-brained scheme I devised a while ago (nearly four years – that surprised me) whereby I aspired to see every bee-eater, roller and kingfisher on this rapidly deteriorating planet. It’s time for an update following a recent trip to Gambia where all three of those families are well represented.

We travelled with Naturetrek and were located at a lodge situated within the Makasutu Forest not far from the capital, Banjul. This lodge is surrounded on the one side by quite dry, open forest and on the other by mangrove swamp with a reasonably wide tidal creek providing access to local villages and The Gambia River itself. The daily routine was to meet at sunrise for tea/coffee/biscuits, go for a walk through the forest or a trip by canoe along the waterway, return for a leisurely breakfast at about 10.30, spend the remainder of the morning and early afternoon at leisure before heading out once again for a walk/canoe trip at around 4.30pm until dusk. Two full day excursions to nearby wildlife rich areas broke up the week and allowed us to experience different habitats and see a bit more of the country. A couple of episodes are worth recording.

The first concerns a visit to the Kartong Refuge where, upon checking in at the observatory, we were told sotto voce that the warden was a Norwich City fan. Really? Well bring it on! I strode to the front of the group and it was a real Livingstone/Stanley moment. For the next five minutes we chatted all things green and yellow whilst the rest of the party looked on bemused. After our Championship catch up (complete of course with a series of put downs to our Suffolk based rivals who for the record languish at the wrong end of the table), we got back to the business of the day with a carrot dangled in the form of blue-cheeked and northern carmine bee-eaters present somewhere behind the coastal dune system. There were many birds on show, too numerous to catalogue, but in the shimmering heat of the rapidly approaching noon we found ourselves on a parched area of sandy dunes just behind the Atlantic pummelled beach. Our native guides fanned out, one eventually calling us over to an area of low scrub whereupon the jewel like birds were hunting flying insects. What a joy - snap, snap, snap! But nothing does justice to the radiant colours of these most enigmatic creatures, effortlessly arrowing across the unbroken intensity of an African sky picking off prey items invisible to the human eye with laser focused precision. Other relevant species on this day were Abyssinian, broad-billed and blue-bellied rollers; all new, all colourful, all delightful. And then back to the lodge where around about 4pm groups of white-throated bee-eaters would gather in the surrounding trees hoping to slake their thirst and indulge in a spot of bathing in the swimming pool. Pied kingfishers would join them, plunge diving into the crystal clear fresh water, a rare resource in this parched land. Oh! for more time to properly set up the camera and watch these beautiful birds go about their business. The stuff of dreams for this soppy idiot who is so easily wooed by the charms of nature.

Northern Carmine Bee-eater

Broad-billed Roller

Blue-bellied Roller

White-throated Bee-eater

Pied Kingfisher

Abyssinian Roller
Later in the week the party took lunch at a restaurant overlooking a freshwater lagoon situated behind a wide beach leading to a hazy, deep cobalt sea. I realised after a short while that once again many birds were using this place as a drinking and bathing zone; lunch forgotten, other group members abandoned, let’s focus on the action. In the hour, maybe less, available I watched yellow-billed kites, Caspian terns, pied kingfishers, broad-billed rollers, blue-cheeked bee-eaters, red-chested swallows, great white egrets, western reef egrets, long-tailed cormorants and a more familiar grey heron utilise the facilities whilst carefully avoiding the liberal sprinkling of crocodiles that were sitting stock still around the perimeter waiting patiently for any hapless fish, bird or English photographer to stray too close. I’m still here and the crocodiles missed a fat meal. How I longed to spend another couple of hours there just pitting my photographic wits against the birds going about their ablutions with sometimes breakneck speed. I do enjoy a challenge.

Caspian Tern

Long-tailed Cormorant

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

The final memorable episode relates to a canoe trip in the golden light of a fading evening when we espied kingfishers galore. Here was blue-breasted, malachite, pied and shining-blue. Hovering, diving, preening; intimate portraits on the calm of a tidal creek. Ospreys perched on overhanging branches – quite possibly UK bred and ringed – swallow-tailed bee-eaters perched warily in pre-roost tranquillity; goliath and purple herons stalked the shallows whilst Senegal thick-knees hid beneath the mangroves. No intrusive sounds of vehicles, machinery or people; just the gentle rippling as the canoe was paddled through the shallow water. Rounding a bend in the river the lights of the lodge shone bright as the lowering sun set in a canvass of orange glow.

Blue-breasted Kingfisher

Striped Kingfisher

Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters

Tally to date then (there’s an awfully long way to go!)

Bee-eaters 9/24
Rollers 6/12
Kingfishers 17/87

Reality check: It’s not going to happen is it?