Bao Bolon, The Gambia, 21 January 2014

5 March 2014 -  

The driver dropped us in the middle of nowhere, 5 kilometres beyond the last village. We walked to the edge of the marshes where the heat haze was already starting to form. Heading north-east, the raised bank of a drainage channel offered excellent views of the wetlands and we followed it for several kilometres, stopping every few hundred metres to set up the telescope and count the waterbirds. Lamin concentrated on the African species and I took the European migrants. We were both very busy with the counts for the next three hours.

The egret flock shimmered in the heat haze, almost impossible to identify or count. After a few minutes they flew up, not egrets at all, but spoonbills – African Spoonbills – and they stayed up for long enough to get a count – 600 together in one flock.  Greenshanks, Black-winged Stilts and Little Stints moved about restlessly, feeding in the shallows.  By contrast, Senegal Thick-knees stood perfectly still on the shore, almost reptilian in their bulging-eyed stillness. An area of rushes interspersed with dried-out mud flats towards the northern end of our walk hosted small flocks of Pied Avocets and Collared Pratincoles, flaunting their elegance, and more retiring Black-tailed Godwits and Wood Sandpipers which stayed mostly hidden in the vegetation. White-faced Whistling Ducks whistled their alarm and a Long-crested Eagle surveyed us from a low tree, its unlikely-looking crest like something a child might draw.

On the causeway road north of Iliassa, the heat was stifling. Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns patrolled the shallows and Ruffs, Wood and Common Sandpipers appeared among the more numerous Little Stints, Greenshanks and Spur-winged Plovers. Far off through the ‘scope we saw a Black Stork, then another. A loose flock of nine of these birds, visitors from Europe where they breed rarely and inconspicuously in forests, was resting on an island.

In the evening I fell asleep by the camp fire, tired out by a fantastic day in one of West Africa’s least known and most important wetlands. We had barely done it justice: next time we will have to count it over several days.

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