Refreshed from the plummet in temperature upon our return to the coast it was time to begin planning our final projects. At a chilly 27 degrees Celsius care had to be taken and additional layers were worn over breakfast in attempt to focus as much thinking as possible towards a possible project. Whilst some of the more organised students had already planned out and had a project set in stone; others, including myself, were still floundering over the infinite possibilities that The Gambia had to offer. The proverbial thinking cap suited well and ideas mulled over continually all throughout breakfast. It was only after a hot dog sausage and half a plate of beans that my mind finally settled upon a little character that I likened to my beloved kingfishers from home. Little blasts of colour, iridescent in the rich African sunlight and with similar characteristics to the kingfisher; the Little Bee Eater seemed like an obvious choice of subject.
During the few days prior to the Tendaba trip I had stumbled across the Little Bee Eaters after wandering away from the main group. The majority of people strolled in the relative shade of Bijilo forest on this particular day. On the verge of burning to a cinder and low on water I took the decision to leave the forest and walk along the adjacent beach where there was more of that photographer’s best friend, Light! A poorly modelled idea at the best of times; nevertheless lingering amongst the shrubs in the scrubland between Bijilo forest and the beach was a pair of Little Bee Eaters. Perched precariously side by side on a long blade of grass emerging from a crumbling sand bank they had a certain character about them. Being a sucker for brightly coloured things they really struck a chord; a chord which thankfully reverberated into my memory during this train of thought.
After “extensive” research (in reality about half an hour’s worth) I had gathered enough information to ensure this was a feasible project. The Little Bee Eaters frequented the same perches and sand banks day after day so locating them would be no problem at all. Just the small task of relocating the ones I had encountered in my bedraggled state before the Tendaba trip.
Another upside to the Little Bee Eater project was the fact it was not far to traipse in the event of another temperature increase. Easy access to the project meant that I was able to return on more than one occasion. The first day of traipsing I was accompanied by Paul Mitchell and a couple of others who were also looking project inspiration. Litter is a real problem in the more developed areas of The Gambia and the short sandy path to the beach was no exception. Yet, where the litter laid recklessly strewn over the dusty path, a high diversity of bird life seemed to have accumulated. Fire finches, Hooded Vultures and Cattle Egrets all sifted through the mess in hope of an easy meal.
Trudging further into the forest an animal conservation student, Hannah (@Colour_TheWorld on twitter) spotted civet tracks. Civets are animals not known to live in Bijilo forest so excitement escalated rapidly amongst the small group. After some enquiring about camera traps, Paul Mitchell had his project. Evidence to back up the existence of Civets within the forest would be excellent news for the forest and surrounding area... This project was continued on Paul’s blog
Getting back to matters in hand! The Little Bee Eaters made an appearance about half way down the forest, in line with a little hut on the beach which really aided in relocating them. However before work could truly begin there was the small matter of a visit to a fish market. The usual bustling sounds and colourful sights of the Gambia were on this occasion accompanied by the stench of fish. Tottering through the market at an amble, disregarding the odd waft of foul smelling fish rot, the overall stench was a pleasant one. Smoke houses contained row upon row of delicious smelling species of fish, the likes of which go beyond my wildlife knowledge. Swordfish, Wrays and Sharks were amongst the fish being processed by the ladies and gentlemen working at this particular fish market brandishing their chopping and gutting tools. A swift tour by one of the youngsters really gave an insight into the inner workings of a Gambian fish market. Despite a pleasant atmosphere however, there is always a fear that their methods of fishing, despite best efforts to control them, are non-sustainable. This fear was compounded the next day on a trip to Bijol Island where a couple of fishing vessels were spotted fishing in a prohibited fishing zone.
Just a short boat ride away from the mainland, Bijol Island is a low lying sand bank situated in the shallows a mile or two offshore. Camera equipment was fortunately stashed safely away as we ploughed through waves as they pummelled our starboard side. Every wave erupted into a spray of mist ensuring that by the time we grounded on Bijol Island we were well and truly drenched.
Bijol Island contained two delicately balanced colonies of tern: The first species being the world’s largest tern; The Caspian Tern and the second being the elegant Royal Tern. Their colonies lay side by side, clearly inhibited in colony size by the level of the tide. Tightly packed together, each colony even fought amongst themselves for space and each tern to maintain its genetic line. This was evident as in many cases terns were forced to chase other terns away from attacking their young. It was clear that life on Bijol Island is no fairytale; nevertheless it was an awesome spectacle. The sight of hundreds of terns gliding into flight as a breeze gently blew beneath their wings. Floating like puppets on strings they hovered creating a wave of terns; a menacing wall to contend with for any potential predator. At times we were considered predators and on multiple occasions the terns swooped at great velocity towards our group. It is usually the tallest person that gets attacked so half the group took to crouching while they walked, resembling something more like a performance of CATS on Broadway than a collection of students. Despite close shaves no one got hit, although the gust of wind from a wing beat ruffled a few hairs at times.
The final few days were spent perched along with the Little Bee Eater on the sand banks. It was a delight to sit and watch the Little Bee Eaters as they undertook their day to day business. Although wary of my presence at first, they warmed to it and allowed me fairly close to each of their regular perches. Attempts at remotely controlled camera shots of them inevitably failed as by sods law they stopped using the regular post I had set my equipment near for the day. It was down to handheld shots obtained by crouching in the sharp undergrowth that left me with me with legs resembling a kittens scratching post. The range of behaviour exhibited by the Little Bee eaters was incredible. The male regularly fed the female and a third member of the family chipped in with the work load every so often.
As well as perching the Little Bee Eaters exhibited: displaying, gathering food by doing small circuits from their perch, the need to scratch an itch and most interestingly; regurgitation. This was not the only interesting behaviour spotted during the time on the bank. Hooded Vultures and Black Kites proved entertaining with their constant interactions, more bird species fraternising amongst rubbish but this time on the beach.
The Little Bee Eaters really helped complete the trip to Gambia. Exploring their world first hand gave a real insight to the species as a whole and it is clear to see why this particularly stunning little species is so successful. Protecting the sand banks that conceal their nest holes along the front of Bijilo forest is key to their survival. Although the species is currently successful, the ever increasing tourism generated in the Gambia will bring more people to the beaches, potentially interrupting mating. However, this is just a theory and something that could potentially be dealt with easily in the event of any disturbance.
It was a distinct pleasure to visit The Gambia. After scratching the money grabbing surface the underneath contains such welcoming people, beautiful creatures and cultural and environmental experiences that titillate every sense. All in all the Gambia is an amazing country and I highly recommend a visit if you are after an enormous diversity of wildlife or simply being immersed in genuine African Culture. Besides, the things listed in the blog are only a drop in the ocean of possible experiences... there are plenty more where these came from.