Saturday, December 22, 2012

Birding The Gambia Part 4: Herons and Storks

I have lumped together all of the 'big' water birds. Herons, Bitterns, Night-herons, Egrets, Storks, Flamingos, Spoonbills, Ibises, Cormorants and the Hamerkop. Even in the dry season The Gambia is pretty wet. The river itself, its tributaries, loads of rice fields ditches and drains and some fairly extensive wetlands, especially on the north side of the river provide extensive habitat for these birds although that doesn't mean you will see them all let alone get decent photographs as these birds are notoriously flighty and unapproachable.
White-crested Tiger Heron Tigriornis leucolopha is nigh on impossible to find. There aren't many; it's nocturnal; it's secretive; it lives in dense Mangroves and it freezes when alarmed! We didn't see one.
Great Bittern Botaurus stellaris is a very rare Palearctic vagrant. I'm not even certain that it's on The Gambian list. We didn't see one.
Dwarf Bittern Ixobrychus sturmii is a wet season migrant so is unlikely to be found in December. We didn't find one.
Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus is, apparently, fairly common but is quite shy and secretive and, of course, little. We didn't see one.
But we did see the other 14 species.
Storks first. Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus was probably the most common but I could never get close to any. All views were distant as was the only views of Yellow-billed Stork Mycteria ibis. Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumenifer was a different matter as there is a well known breeding site which we visited. You have to be a friend of all things living to like the look of these! As the kids I used to teach would say 'Well ugly innit.'
Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumenifer
We didn't see any other Storks but we did see both Greater and Lesser Flamingo on the River Gambia. The Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus was too far away to try for photographs - the river is really wide. But I did manage to get a shot of Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor flying away after the boat had disturbed their feeding. I didn't know that these birds often feed by swimming in deep water.
Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor
We saw both species of Pelican on The Gambian list but the Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens being a widespread and common resident was far more frequent than the Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus which is more of an intra-African migrant. The coast and the mouth of the River Gambia are probably the best place to see these two species.
Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens
Hamerkop Scopus umbretta is a surprisingly common bird and we saw these even in trees on sandy beaches and in all of the hotels in which we stayed. (Not in the hotels as such...but in the gardens!)

Hamerkop Scopus umbretta
Great Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo lucidus (A sub-species known as White-breasted Cormorant) were found along the coast and Long-tailed Cormorants Phalacrocorax africanus were far more common and could be seen most everywhere especially in the evenings as they flew to roosts. The creeks and small tributaries of The Gambia River are ideal for African Darter Anhinga rufa and we saw hundreds whilst on the boats. The chestnut forehead and crown on this individual point to it being a female as males tend to have a black crown.
African Darter Anhinga rufa
We only saw one species of Ibis - the Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash the other three species are all particularly scarce. In fact the Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita is classed as a vagrant with only a handful of records from Senegal. I don't think it's been recorded in The Gambia - that would have been quite a find.
Both African and European Spoonbill were seen as we travelled up the river but again both were too far away to photograph. The red on the face and legs of the African Spoonbill Platalea alba was easy to see even at a fair distance making it easy to distinguish between the two species.
So back to the Herons. Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis is particularly common, especially the dark morph seen in this photograph. We encountered these wherever there was suitable habitat - wherever it was a bit damp!
Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis
Green-backed or Striated Heron Butorides striata is a common resident and we found these in most ditches and streams. This one was hanging around a filthy stinking creek that ran through the middle of the grounds of one of our hotels. It was surprising how many species of birds found this to their liking. It looked and smelled like an open sewer to me!
Green-backed (Striated) Heron Butorides striata
Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides was common and we saw loads of these.
Squacco Heron  Ardeola ralloides
But we only saw a couple of Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia. However, even a couple of these was, surprisingly, more than the numbers of Little Egret Egretta garzetta that we saw. Just the one all of the time we were there. I would have expected more of this, fairly common egret.
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia
Great Egret Egretta alba was more numerous than Little and Intermediate and were often seen along the banks of the river. I tried for an arty reflection shot in this photograph and as you can see I failed completely. It's a rubbish picture and I don't know why I've published it on this blog!
Great Egret Egretta alba
This is not a good picture either. It's a Goliath Heron Ardea goliath and it was about a million yards away when I photographed it flying along the bank of the river. It's not a certainty on a trip to The Gambia and it was the only one we saw so I thought that I would have to stick this picture into the blog. Look at its bill!
Goliath Heron Ardea goliath
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis was just about everywhere. They are pretty tame and hang around in big groups feeding on lawns, dumps, hotel tables, restaurants, picnic hampers and almost out of your hand. I expected to find one each morning in my shower.
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
There were plenty of Grey Heron Ardea cinerea to photograph but I couldn't be bothered as there were so many new birds to keep me occupied such as Black-headed Heron Ardea melanocephala which was fairly common especially in the Abuko reserve. This is a resident heron and is easily found but the Purple Heron Ardea purpurea is more of a palearctic migrant although some are resident and is a little less common. We only saw a couple during our time in The Gambia
Black-headed Heron Ardea melanocephala
 The best bird in terms of rarity and difficulty to locate and then see well was the White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconatus. We were on a small boat cruising the creeks near Tendaba when our guide found two of these skulking in the mangroves. These birds have massive eyes. Both birds were keeping fairly still on boughs of mangrove peering at us with these huge peepers. I was so mesmerised that I forgot to take any photos. But I did take pictures of it's close relative the Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax which is a lot more common and obvious.
Black-crowned Night Heron  Nycticorax nycticorax  (Adult)

Black-crowned Night Heron  Nycticorax nycticorax  (Juvenile)
Along the road which follows the north bank of the river there are a couple of well-known freshwater wetlands near kilometre marker number 58. They are famous for being fairly reliable sites for Egyptian Plover - a bird on most visiting birder's list. It was at one of these Egyptian Plover hunts that we saw our only Black Heron (or egret) Egretta ardesiaca of the trip. And here it is:

Black Heron Egretta ardesiaca

 But did we find any Egyptian Plovers?

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