Working for birds in Africa

A Bird Watcher's Guide to the Gambia

Sat, 29/12/2012 - 14:33 -- abc_admin
Rod Ward. Prion, ISBN 1 871104 041, Publ. July 1994. Price £9.75. Distributed by NHBS, 2 Wills Road, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 5XN, UK.
page 59-60

All those engaged in ornithological capacities in The Gambia should be delighted to hear of any publication that attempts to support Gambian efforts to conserve bird habitats and collate ornithological data. I am sure Rod Ward sets out in good faith to do this in this simple, quick to read, 116 page soft-backed, and thus easy-to-pack, book. Unfortunately, the degree of factual inaccuracy, in its attempt to describe the ornithological scene in The Gambia, drastically reduces its value. To cite one of five prominent claims on the rear cover.... 'Birdwatcher's Guides are researched and compiled by expert birdwatchers with outstanding knowledge of birdlife of the particular region or country'. The publishers, with their access to far-reaching markets (and in this case also appearing to represent The Gambia), have, I believe, a responsibility to the international ornithological community to do something to avert a stream of false information. Yet, it seems anybody with a few weeks experience in any undersurveyed country and with access to a desk-top pc system is seemingly in a position to publish and vend their trip report in the guise of a definitive statement. Reviewing this book from Banjul on 24 October amidst an enormous electrical storm, and whilst extremely heavy rain cools the night, I turned to the 'When to Go' section on page 20, which notifies me that the rains have finished but I could expect a shower! Far more irritating are the ornithological distortions. These could have been avoided if valid research inquiries and requests had been made. For example, one will look in vain for a Western Little Sparrowhawk Accipiter erythropus in open woodland in the Lower and Middle River, when in fact this species is a little known forest-indicator recorded in The Gambia from two forest islands and one adjacent locality in coastal Western Division. One is also told that Red-throated Bee-eater Merops bulocki, unarguably a common breeding resident in Middle and Upper River, is mainly a non-breeding dry season visitor to the corresponding divisions. Equally, one is informed that Mottled Spinetail Telacanthura ussheri a rare and local resident when, in fact, it is a frequent to common resident throughout all divisions. These are samples of the frequent errors which are made as a result of following, or direct quotation of, pioneering, but now long out-of-date, status and distribution reviews. The Atlantic Hotel - with its own purpose-built birders' garden and bird list of over 160 species, a very competent Gambian birder to upkeep it, its weekly lectures and daily films, its wide range of birding safaris which are offered in the reception, and a management with corporate membership to support the new Tanji Bird Reserve - is not, I read here, an ideal location for tourists. I am confident that there are ABC members and hundreds of others who would dispute that. All cited Gambian telephone numbers have changed to six figures and directory enquiries will up-date you; this occurred a considerable time before publication. It is unfortunate that Baba G Bah, Tijan Kanteh or Solomon Jallow, are not referred to in the section 'Bird Guides' on page 14. The bird list with 511 species is lifted directly from the thoughtful and comprehensive 'Dowsett & Forbes-Watson', with acknowledged assistance from another expert, and although it is admitted as provisional, it falls c 50 species short of the actual current total of species catalogued. The attempt to clarify the use of multiple vernacular names is to be welcomed but, at a time when there is no field guide to the area using these new names, could lead to even further confusion for the first-time visitor, at whom this book is presumably directed. A fitting illustration of this is with the Viduinae indigobirds, while the Ploceidae weavers are another minefield of disarray. First-timers may not yet have acquired either Birds of Africa Vols I-IV or Dowsett & Forbes-Watson, and so will be no nearer to understanding these interchangeable common names. The statements concerning status and distribution, pps 90-96, 'Selective Bird List', are very inaccurate and extensively contradict the contemporary database compiled by Wacher et al, that draws on c 60,000 records. We are advised (p 97) that the Birds of West Africa, currently in preparation, is bound to become the main field guide used by birdwatchers visiting The Gambia. One also anticipates that the Christopher Helm, Pica Press Field Guide to The Birds of The Gambia and S. Senegal, in preparation for publication late 1995 (and drawing upon the previously mentioned database), will be of some use here as well! On page 33 one is told that Tanji Bird Reserve was established by Clive Barlow. In fact, it was the Department of Wildlife and Conservation of the Government of The Gambia which was responsible for this. I located and have worked constantly at the site for nearly ten years, and much is owed to the academic tact of Dr T J Wacher for setting in motion the site's elevation to protected area status. There is no mention of where to pay an entry fee to the reserve, or how to support the development of the reserve through the UK based charity 'Tanji Birders'. Considering that much of the information on this subject is taken from a recent RSPB Birds article on The Gambia, it is curious that this pertinent point, courteously included there, is excluded here. I fear that any guide cannot reasonably profess to be authoritatively researched when there are such gaping errors as these. Read the book, if you are totally unfamiliar with The Gambia, for what it is - something to be read on the flight or just before, for some of the tips and for the 19 site accounts (a few new ones additional to Edberg's A Naturalists Guide To The Gambia), which are certainly useful. Meticulous accuracy, the cornerstone of our subject, shall have to wait for the second edition. Dr Ward solicits additional information for this in his final comments. I do hope he receives a response, because this book's sometimes bold and somewhat hazardous conjectures, drawn from brief personal experience of the country and the rewording of others' articles and publications, are not a satisfactory reflection of current Gambian ornithology. This country is indeed a marvellous place to watch birds with a number of birders and companies better placed to brief you than this contribution in its current format.

Clive R. Barlow

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