Helen Scales

Pied_crow Myburgh

The accidental birdwatcher

As a marine biologist I consider myself to be a fish-watcher. Obviously it’s not the sort of thing you can do all the time; it generally requires a certain amount of being underwater to really work well. But for bird-watchers it’s a different matter. Theirs is a pastime that can happen at any moment and here in the Gambia it easily becomes a fulltime occupation if you let it. There are absolutely masses of birds here, which is why I’ve found myself accidentally birdwatching. It’s kind of hard not to.

As an accidental birdwatcher I have the disadvantage of not carrying around binoculars or an ID book with me, and I have virtually no knowledge of bird families and groups. All I do is sit around or float on my back in the pool and see what flits past, soars overhead or perches on powerlines. Then occasionally I spend a bit of time browsing the internet for pictures that will tell me what I’ve seen.

I heard that a birder identified more than150 species just in the small garden of the guest house we’ve been staying at. I’ve not spied anything like that number and as an accidental birdwatcher I’ve not written a proper list of the ones I have seen but here are a few of my favourites:

Pied crows. I’ve seen these before in Madagascar. They’re not difficult to spot and are common across much of Africa, but I’m a huge fan of corvids and I love their bold black and white markings.

Laughing doves. They look like dainty versions of the urban pigeons I know from home. And yes, they do indeed laugh.

Beautiful sunbirds. These are quite tiny – they are the old world equivalents of new world hummingbirds. And, yes, they are very beautiful.

Yellow-crowned gonolek. I caught a glimpse of one of these the first day we were here, then only much later got a good enough view to identify it. They are true stunners and their name sounds to me like a race of aliens from a Douglas Adams book. The Gonoleks.

Long tailed glossy starling. I see these most days in a small flock, flying past as I go for an evening swim.

And the hooded vultures are immensely impressive. I first caught a glimpse of one flying through some trees near our guest house and couldn’t believe how big they are. They are huge. Next time I saw them, they were picking over dead fish on the beach.

Being an accidential birdwatcher I’ve not taken any pictures of the birds I’ve seen, so here are some taken by other people (thank you all of you, photo credits in rollover boxes). Can you guess which one is which?

I’ve enjoyed my time as an accidental birdwatcher. When I head back to the UK next week I’ll miss having these colourful, feathered beasties around.

And maybe next time I come back to West Africa I’ll bring some binoculars.

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