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A West African Diary

Myself, John and Paul have now been in West Africa for three weeks. For the past seven days we have been joined by a second group of project volunteers. Here’s an update on what has been a brilliant ten days since my last diary entry.

Wednesday 18th January

Swallow-tailed Kites must be one of the most graceful raptors in the world. This morning we were treated to the sight of several hunting in an area of acacia on the road between Toubacouta and Kaolack. Not much bigger than a Common Kestrel, they are almost completely white – bar some black in the wings – and have a deeply-forked tail which gives them their name. They hunt by hovering over the savannah and one bird in particular put on a great show as it searched for small mammals and insects. Aside from the kites, numerous Short-toed Eagles, a Ruppel’s Vulture, a few White-backed Vultures, a couple of Marsh Harriers and several Montagu’s Harriers, made it another excellent morning for raptors.

Smaller passerines were numerous too.  A large mixed flock at a watering hole included Northern Red Bishops, Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleus, Red-billed Firefinches, Red-billed Quellas, Cut-throat Finches, Black-crowned Sparrow Larks and African Silverbills. Close-by numerous palearctic migrants flitting through the acacia included Chiffchaffs, a single Melodius Warbler, Olivaceous Warblers and several Wheatears. A couple of Rufous scrub Robins and several Chestnut-bellied Starlings were notable too.  A few waders, including a group of Little Stints and a single Marsh Sandpiper were dotted around a larger area of water and a stunning male Rufous-crowned Roller, its crimson and blue underparts sparkling in the morning light, displayed overhead.

Just as we were getting ready to leave a flock of 125 White Pelicans circled above us, joined by three Black Storks and a Marabou Stork.

Once again it was stifling hot in the middle of the day, but once it had begun to cool down in the early evening we headed to a small lake just a few kilometres north of Toubacouta. A couple of juvenile Ospreys, both unringed, were present when we arrived. It is hard to imagine an established adult adult bird allowing another to share its lake, but the two youngsters seemed relaxed in each other’s company. I wonder if at least one of them will make this their future winter home?

Last year, when we visited the lake we had brilliant views of a pair of Verraux’s Eagle Owls. We hoped we would see them again this year and, sure enough, Paul found one perched surprisingly inconspicuously for such a large bird, in the top of a palm tree.

The lake itself was teeming with a wealth of wildlife; a Crocodile lying quietly beside the reeds, Chestnut-breasted and Wire-tailed Swallows hawking insects, Purple Herons lurking in the shallows and an elusive Black Crake. A pair of Hadada Ibis flew over and then, just as were about to leave, JJ found a Pear-spotted Owlet sitting a few feet away.

Thursday 19th January

An early start saw us leave Toubacouta after breakfast and head back to Tanji. As ever the border crossing and Barra-Banjul ferry took some time, but we arrived at the Paradise Inn in time for a walk up to the marsh. There we found several Ospreys, including blue/white KL – an adult Scottish bird we had seen last year.

Friday 20th January

This morning myself and the team made a return visit to Tanji Lower Basic School – the school that we first visited in January last year. Since that first visit a year ago we have developed a plan and raised money for wildlife education across Gambian schools and initiated links between schools along the migration flyway between the UK and West Africa. We were visiting Tanji today to talk about migration and to give the children letters written by pupils from Whissendine and Cottesmore Primary schools in Rutland. During my talk I told the story of a young Osprey’s migration from Rutland to West Africa, using John’s illustrations from our children’s book Ozzie’s Migration. Having explained how the Osprey had passed through Europe and across the Sahara I showed a slide of it flying over a Gambia fishing boat. As I did, I noticed that one of the girls in the class broke into a smile; it was a sight that I guess she was very familiar with and perhaps seeing it helped her to better understand the journey the Ospreys make each autumn. For me that smile personified exactly what we are trying to achieve; to help children in places like Tanji – that are incredibly important for thousands of migratory birds from Europe – to understand more about wildlife and, hopefully, to value it more. By the end of the talk the children seemed very enthusiastic. Perhaps next time they are on Tanji beach they will look out for the Ospreys? As part of the education programme, JJ, our friend and guide, will be taking the children to the beach to look for them. It would be great to think that there may be one or two future JJs with him that day.

The visit to Tanji was part of a busy final day in Gambia for the first group of project volunteers. Having returned to Paradise Inn at Tanji last night, we wanted to make the most of their final day and so, at first light, we headed for the beach. Sadly, it was too windy to stay there for very long and so, instead, we had a walk around Tanji Bird Reserve. This area of scrub and coastline rarely disappoints and true to form, we had an excellent couple of hours. Highlights were very close views of a Black-shouldered Kite, several singing Nightingales, three Lanner Falcons – including brilliant views of an adult – at least three White-fronted Plovers and an immature Pomarine Skua. There were Ospreys too, but none with colour rings.

After lunch we drove to the airport, waved goodbye to the volunteers and Project Information Officer, Michelle Househam and then had a couple of hours at Tanji Marsh. Like last night we saw one of the colour-ringed adult birds we had seen last year – this time the adult female F93 who we also saw on Bijoli Island last week.

Saturday 21st January

For the third morning in a row we woke to a strong wind and so we scrapped our plan to walk down to Tanji beach, and instead headed for the marsh. It was a good decision because we identified another colour-ringed Osprey while we were there – OIX – a German adult female. Other highlights included a female Painted Snipe sitting quietly on the edge of the mangroves and stunning views of a Malachite Kingfisher – it’s turquoise-blue head dazzling in the morning sun. Continuing on that theme, a single flowering tree had three species of Sunbird feeding in it as we walked back to the Paradise Inn – Splendid, Beautiful and Variable.

After a break in the middle of the day to allow us to watch Norwich play Chelsea at the sports club in Tanji, we headed back to the marsh in the evening. There were five adult Ospreys on the mud when we arrived, including F93. As usual they were all adults. Another adult bird was sitting in the area usually frequented by juveniles and as it flew past us we could see a blue ring on its left leg. John’s photos showed that it was blue/white ED – one from Scotland. It is interesting that juveniles always look much more uneasy than adults when they are at the marsh. The adult birds obviously feel comfortable in each other’s company, whereas the juveniles seem much more wary about the fact that they may be perched somewhere they are not welcome. This was true of a colour-ringed juvenile that was perched close to ED. It looked very nervous as it sat on the mud, and it was no surprise when it flew off before we had a chance to read the ring.

The great thing about watching the same site regularly is that you notice the birds’ daily routines. Each night the adult Ospreys roost in the mangroves. Next morning they head off fishing – usually at Tanji beach – soon after first light. Once they have caught a fish they bring it back inland and eat it on the mud at Tanji marsh. They’ll then remain there until it is time for the evening fishing trip. Then by 7 o’clock they head off to their roost sites in the safety of nearby trees.

Of course it wasn’t just Ospreys we saw this evening. The other highlight was a pair of displaying Red-faced Falcons which performed the most incredible aerobatics right in front of us – each bird rising and falling like a yoyo. The female of the pair then suddenly dived and caught a hirundine, before bringing it to a tree very close to where we were watching. She was joined by her mate, and we hardly dared to move while we admired them from very close range – the chestnut-red head markings contrasting with the beautifully barred underparts.

As we walked back to Paradise Inn egrets were streaming into their night time roost – the tree resembling a Christmas decoration!

Sunday 22nd January

The wind relented sufficiently this morning for us to venture onto Tanji beach for the first time. Tanji is the most important fishing village in Gambia and the beach is always a hub of activity as the boats bring in their catch. Walk half a kilometre north though and you can get away from the hustle and bustle. That’s exactly what we did and we had an excellent couple of hours watching at least eight different Ospreys – four adults and four juveniles – fishing where the creek that runs from Tanji marsh enters the sea. Although the wind had dropped compared to previous mornings, it was still gusty enough to make fishing difficult. We watched a German adult male – 3GM – fishing for a about an hour before he finally caught. Amazingly as he rose up from the water we could see he had caught two fish and was carrying one in each talon. He dropped one of them but carried the other off inland. John managed to get a photo of her with the two fish – I don’t suppose there are many other photos like it!

It was interesting that three of the juveniles waited for the adults to depart before they made a concerted effort to catch. This is another example of how life is difficult for juvenile birds during their first few months in West Africa. A definite hierarchy exists at most sites we have visited and, as usual, we watched adult birds chasing off juveniles on numerous occasions this morning. Just before we left one of the juvenile finally made a successful dive.

As usual there was a good mix of other birds on the beach including at least three Kelp Gulls and a few Slender-billed Gulls.

In the afternoon we walked down to the marsh to see if we could finally identify the juvenile which has eluded us on just about every visit. We spent all evening waiting at the southern end of the marsh where the juvenile birds tend to congregate. Typically, the one we wanted to see did not appear, and, in fact, we did not see any other colour ringed birds. We did however enjoy watching an African Harrier Hawk hunting on the mud. These strange raptors are about the same size as an Osprey but with broader wings and very long legs. They use their legs to dig out crabs from areas of mud flats like Tanji marsh. We watched one individual for about half an hour as it searched for food. Every so often it would peer down into a hole in the mud and then attempt to dig out whatever it saw with its specially adapted feet. We didn’t actually see it eat anything but it certainly made for entertaining viewing!

Monday 23rd January

A quieter day saw us spend some time watching Little Bee-eaters, Yellow-billed Shrikes and Sunbirds at the Paradise Inn before a nice couple of hours at Tanji Marsh in the evening. A white-ringed adult (presumably from Scotland) and the German juvenile male both flew over us, but the only colour ring we could read was F93 who was eating a fish in her usual spot. Great views of the resident pair of Red-necked Falcons was the undoubted highlight.

Tuesday 24th January

The marsh at Tanji has undoubtedly been the best place to read colour rings so far, and so this morning we headed down there shortly after first light. The juvenile male who has been eluding us was again present, perched on a tree at the eastern end. We approached through the scrub and managed to get to a spot where we would be able to read his ring. Typically we could only see the bird’s right leg and then a group of Pied Crows landed in the tree and flushed him! As he flew off we could see that the ring which we had thought was black, was in fact blue and that the metal ring was a standard BTO ring, not a German clip ring. So, although we hadn’t read it, we could at least confirm that the bird was Scottish. Hopefully we’ll have another chance to read his ring before we head home on 3rd February.

During the course of the next few hours, seven adult Ospreys returned to the marsh, one with a very long Needle Fish. 3GM, the male bird we had seen catch two fish on Saturday morning, and F93 were the only colour-ringed birds.

Various locals came up to us while we were watching the Ospreys and one of them, an elderly man, told us how he had once seen a local kill an Osprey on the marsh. He had told him never to do it again, because Ospreys and other migratory birds flew to Gambia from Europe and that they needed protecting. I hope that the education work we are carrying out in the local communities will help to reinforce the words of that wise man.

After lunch we headed to the airport to collect the second group of volunteers. It was great to see them. By the time we got back to the Paradise Inn Lodge there was just time for a quick bit of birding around the grounds and we were rewarded with fantastic views of two Violet Turacos.

Wednesday 25th January

A couple of weeks ago, when we went out to Bijoli Island for the first time, it was low tide and the birds were scattered around the island. Today we wanted to try something a little different and so we made the short boat ride out to the island shortly after 8am to coincide with high tide. That turned out to be a really good decision. As we arrived, we found that the birds were concentrated on the central part of the island; an area that only gets covered in the worst storms. As usual the Caspian Terns and Grey-headed Gulls were there in excellent numbers. Slender-billed Gulls, looking resplendent in the early morning sunlight, were dotted in amongst them and numerous Sanderlings, Ringed Plovers and Turnstones dashed around in front of us. At the southern end of the island a large group of Audouin’s Gulls were roosting and they were joined by one or two Little Terns, Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers. Several Ospreys were scattered around the island, sitting happily in amongst all the terns and gulls. We checked each one for colour rings and soon located 3PV, a German male who we had seen on the island with the first group. Numerous Ospreys were coming and going, some fishing just off the island and others resting on the sand.  An adult male landed with the group of Audouin’s Gulls and we immediately saw that it had a blue colour ring on its left leg. John and I inched our way forward and soon read the ring – blue/white CT. I sent a text to Roy and within minutes he had replied saying that it was a bird that had been ringed as a chick at a nest on the Black Isle in 2009. Great stuff!

After a couple of hours on the island, we headed back to the mainland and reflected on a great morning. In the evening we walked up to Tanji Marsh from Paradise Inn where we saw the usual selection of birds, including at least half a dozen Ospreys.

 Thursday 26th January

The trip for the second group of volunteers is following the same itinerary as the first and so today we headed to Kartong and then the River Allahein.

The marsh at Kartong provided the group with the usual good views of a range of wetland species, most notably Little Crake and Painted Snipe. It was also nice to see several Ospreys; last week we had failed to see any, but this morning we enjoyed close views of at least four different individuals. One of them, an adult female, had a German colour ring, but it was just too distant to read. The marsh is less than a kilometre inland and, in addition to the Ospreys we had overhead, we could see at least six fishing off the coast at one point. We checked all of them for satellite transmitters – bird number 12 from the Lake District has spent the last fifteen months on the coast here, and we hoped we might see it.  Sadly, it never appeared, but as we waited by a shallow pool, a dark-phase Montagu’s Harrier flew past .

After a few hours at Kartong we returned the local secondary school and the group of teenagers we had first spoken to two weeks ago. During that visit we had asked the group to write letters about their life in Kartong for us to take back to the UK, and the visit gave us an opportunity to collect them. We also talked about the migration of 09 and AW from Rutland Water. I was really pleased when a girl came up to me after the talk to say she had seen an Osprey fishing off the beach shortly after our first visit – it was nice to know that she had obviously taken an interest in what we had been talking about. We were joined at the school by Geri, owner of Sandele Eco-Lodge which is situated just up the coast from Kartong. Geri already does a great deal of very valuable work with the local community and she talked to the group about the importance of conserving this beautiful section of coastline for future generations. Eco-tourism is extremely valuable to Gambia and as JJ and I have been pointing out during our school talks, it is in the local community’s best interest to conserve the wildlife that their country has become famous for.

After lunch beside the River Allahein, we enjoyed another good boat trip on the river, catching up with Rolf Wahl’s French colour-ringed Osprey for the fourth time and also a German female, S79, that we had seen last year.

Friday  27th January

We were on the road just after 8am for the drive inland to Tendaba. Like two weeks ago, we stopped for lunch beside a tributary of the River Gambia. An Osprey was fishing in the river when we arrived and at least three Wahlburg’s Eagles flew over during the course of our stop.

After settling in at Tendaba we had an evening walk at Tendaba airfield, adding Brubru – a small shrike – to the trip list. We also had great views of a pair of Mosque Swallow – a big rusty-orange hirundine.

After dinner, we were visited by eleven pupils from Tendaba Primary School. They are the third school to be involved in our education project and have particular significance because Tendaba is where JJ grew up. Like at Tanji, JJ and I talked through Ozzie’s Migration; a really good way to explain the concept of migration to the children.

Saturday 28th January

As boat trips go, it is fair to say that this morning’s was fairly eventful. All was calm as we headed across the Gambia River just after first light. The pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins performed well and at least one Osprey was already out fishing. As we headed into the mangroves on the north shore of the river, we enjoyed great views of a displaying Blue-breasted Kingfisher. Before long we had added Malachite Kingfisher and White-backed Night Heron to the day’s list too.

Despite the fact we are 50 miles inland, the creek is tidal and as we wound our way through the mangroves, the water got shallower and shallower. Eventually, just as we were admiring a Martial Eagle, the boat ground to a halt. We were beached! One of the boat crew had to risk the crocodile-infested waters to pull us along. As he did a male Montagu’s Harrier flew low over the boat and a pair of male Pygmy Sunbirds, looking resplendent in the morning light competed for the attention of a female. Before long we were back in the main channel and all seemed OK. The boat’s propeller though had obviously taken a battering against the creek bed and the engine completely gave up; sending out clouds of smoke and resulting in us becoming lodged against the bank! Fortunately the tide was now in our favour and, once we had managed to manoeuvre the boat round, we slowly began drifting in the right direction. By the time another boat arrived to give us a tow we had had brilliant views of a White-throated Bee-eater; and with no whirling engine noise to disturb the silence. As we headed back to the camp, another two Montagu’s Harriers proved a good way to end a very eventful morning.

In the evening a Western banded Snake Eagle, perched near Tendaba airfield and a Greater Honeyguide, which the whole group could admire through the scopes, was just the prelude to a brilliant hour or so. At around 6pm we drove to the Nightjar spot and went for a walk through the scrub. JJ knew this was a reliable site for Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and we scanned the tall trees for the huge owl. Suddenly one appeared out of the trees and flew a few hundred metres across the scrub. It perched in almost full view, allowing us all to admire its fantastic ear tufts, pink eyelids and huge bill. Then John turned round and found another one, perched just above our heads! Some local children were just as excited as us at the brilliant views we had through the scopes.

As dusk arrived we walked back to the road, hoping a Standard-winged Nightjar would appear. Sure enough at about 7:15 a male flew low over the road, showing off its incredible wing streamers in the failing light. It was a great way to end the day.

Sunday 29th January

An early start saw us arrived at Kiang West National Park at first light. The park is one of the few areas in West Africa where Leopards and other large mammals remain. Leopard was never going to be a possibility but a huge male Warthog made for an impressive sight as it strode across the Savannah. Soon afterwards a loud bark signalled that the local troop of Baboons had woken. One of them came and checked us out before returning to the main group, who slowly made their way across an area of open grasslands. There must have been as many as thirty individuals, including several large males and mothers with babies on their backs. A group of Colobus monkeys meant it had been a good morning for primates.

As we drove out of Kiang, we checked out the area where we had seen Ground Hornbills last week. Sadly we couldn’t find them, but an adult and juvenile Beaudouin’s Eagles circling overhead more than made up for it. A pair of displaying Rufous-crowned Rollers made for a great sight and a few Wheatears flitted around in front of us.

Later on in the afternoon we headed back across the River Gambia for another boat trip. It was now high tide and that would ensure there was no repeat of yesterday’s fun and games. Bird-wise, things were fairly quiet, but despite this the trip turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in West Africa. At high tide many of the crocodiles which inhabit the mangroves lie beside the creek, and like our trip with the first group, we enjoyed some really good viewsof several before they slipped off into the water. One individual, in particular, was very confiding and allowed us to get almost a little too close for comfort! If that was good, then what came next was almost unbelievable. As we rounded a corner, John shouted Otter. Initially I couldn’t see anything and I thought I had missed it – they are normally such elusive creatures. I needn’t have worried though. It appeared again a few seconds later from between some mangrove roots and JJ started squeaking, like you would to try and temp a Stoat or Weasel out in to the open. The Otter was clearly very interested in what it was hearing and came out into full view on the bank. Clawless Otters are much bigger and heavier than their European counterparts and the sheer bulk of this animal, particularly its very broad tail, was apparent as soon as it was out of the water. Amazingly, for the next ten minutes, with JJ continuing to squeak, the Otter followed the boat, running along the bank beside us, and even rearing up on to its hind legs to try and work out what was making the noise. It was truly incredible. I managed to get some good video footage, and will post it on the site with the rest of this week’s video diaries  early next week once we’re back in the UK.

As if that wasn’t enough, as we headed back across the Gambia, the pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins came and joined us, with several swimming right alongside the boat – so close that we could have touched them. It had been an unforgettable evening.

Monday 30th January

It is great to know where satellite-tagged Ospreys are spending the winter, but even better to actually have the chance of seeing them on their wintering grounds. And that’s exactly what we did today. In 2009 Roy Dennis fitted a satellite transmitter to a young male Osprey at a nest on the Rothiemurchus Estate in northern Scotland. Little did he know at the time that the bird – which he called Rothiemurchus – would provide us with such a wealth of information about young Ospreys. After wandering around West Africa – and visiting Djoudj National Park among other places – Rothiemurchus finally settled on a tributary of the River Gambia, just over the border in rural Senegal. He remained there until last May, when he flew north to the UK for the first time. During the course of the summer he wandered over a huge part of northern Britain, visiting his natal nest only briefly and exploring from as far afield as Cumbria and Sutherland. It provided us with a great deal of new information on the movements of young Ospreys when they first return to the UK.

In September, Rothiemurchus headed south again and a few weeks later was back at his regular wintering site. Like all adult Ospreys he has remained in a relatively small area since then, and so, seeing as we would be passing very close by on our way from Tendaba to the Sine-Saloum Delta, we thought we’d have a look for him.

Turning off the main North Bank road shortly after Kerewan, we followed dirt tracks north for seven or eight kilometres, the rutted road taking us through several villages where we received one or two quizzical looks from the locals. Using Google Earth on my laptop as a guide we stopped as close as possible to the area Rothiemurchus has been favouring and walked across extremely arid ground to the edge of what on Google Earth looks like a nice open channel. The reality is something a little different; the channel is covered by dense, impenetrable mangroves. Although we could see some dead trees, if Rothiemurchus was perching on a low stump or on the ground next to the river, we stood no chance of seeing him.

Unperturbed, we waited. Eventually an Osprey appeared. This had to be him. We all looked the tell-tale transmitter on the bird’s back. But there wasn’t one;  despite waiting more than two hours in exactly the right spot, the Osprey that appeared wasn’t the one we wanted!

Eventually we decided to call it a day and we all trudged rather forlornly back to the bus. I say forlornly, but we had actually had an excellent couple of hours. In one scan of the mangroves John had counted 14 Montague’s Harriers and there were also Collared Praticoles hawking insects overhead.

As we drove away Alagie, our brilliant driver, who had surpassed even his own high standards on these very difficult roads, suggested we try one more spot by the river. It was a very good job we did. We walked down to the water’s edge and virtually as we did, an Osprey appeared from out of the mangroves. As it came closer we could see the transmitter. At last, it was Rothiemurchus! He circled overhead and then began fishing in the river in front of us. That was a mistake though, because no sooner had he started fishing, than a second Osprey appeared – an adult female – and chased him off! Interestingly, where we were watching the two birds was right on the edge of Rothiemurchus’s usual range; and the behaviour of this second bird helped explain why he usually doesn’t venture much further downriver. Having been chased away, Rothiemurchus disappeared back down into the mangroves, presumably to his favourite perch. We got back on the bus and I rang Roy to give him the good news. At last our patience had been rewarded.

Tuesday 31st January

From an Osprey point of view, the Sine-Saloum Delta has been the highlight of the trip and so as we got on the boat at Missirah before first light this morning, everyone was very excited. The first twenty minutes of the boat ride out to Ile d’Oisseaux was in total darkness. By the time we reached the mouth of the delta the sun was just rising above the eastern horizon and as it did, it illuminated a spectacular scene; groups of Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, a single Greater Flamingo, countless Slender-billed Gulls and numerous Sandwich and Caspian Terns fishing all around the boat. By getting out so early we were literally surrounded by birds. Several Ospreys were already out fishing too.

Once on Ille d’Oisseaux, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were hawking around our heads, the calls of Crested Larks filled the air, and a pod of Porpoises were just offshore. Several Ospreys were perched on the island, but none of them were ringed. Surprisingly, in fact, we didn’t see a single colour-ringed Osprey all morning. Several birds caught fish near the island, but they were all unringed. It had, nevertheless, been a great few hours. To cap it off, we passed close by an African Fish Eagle on our way back to Missirah.

 

Ospreys at Oundle School

As we wait to hear news from the rest of the team in West Africa, the Osprey Road Show has started the 2012 season in style with a visit to Oundle School near Peterborough. Here is Ken’s report…

Whilst the main focus just now is quite rightly on the fantastic work being done by the Osprey Team in West Africa, some activities are still taking place a little closer to home. Today, for example, Michelle is leading a talk to the Junior Science Club at Oundle School in Northamptonshire, and I am assisting her.

Michelle is not quite sure which continent she is in ~ just two days ago she was in The Gambia watching wintering Ospreys and many other birds and animals in searing heat, and now here she is on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon preparing for the first school presentation of 2012. We meet in a café to update our talk, but in fact I spend most of the time listening to fascinating African tales! If you’ve not watched the video diaries on the ‘News’ pages yet, do so without delay ~ they’re brilliant!

Suddenly it’s time to move to the School, and we make our way to the Needham Science Building, where we find a cheerful welcome from members of staff, including the teacher in charge Ms Fernandez. About fifty chairs have been set out around the lap-top, screen and projector. The boys and girls, aged 11 or 12, come in in small groups and enjoy the drinks and biscuits which have been set out for them. It’s 5.00pm now, so they’ve already had a long day in school. We hear that after our talk there’s prep to do for some, while others have a birthday party to attend! One girl will be writing a report on the presentation, and another member of staff tells us she will be taking a few photos for the school website.

We start, and the familiar pictures appear on the screen. I feel a little ‘rusty’ as we haven’t done this for a few months, but we soon warm up and get into our stride. ‘Has anyone here seen a wild, live Osprey?’ A few hands go up ~ yes, they have seen Ospreys, mainly at Rutland Water, but one person has been to Loch of the Lowes. We describe the main features of Ospreys and their world, and have a small diversion to define and even spell zygodactylic, that special word to describe an Osprey’s ability to turn a toe backwards to allow a better grip on a fish. Michelle deals with all the new data on AW’s and 09’s autumn migration and how we followed them thanks to the satellite transmitters, and she ends with a few photos of areas in Gambia, where she was herself just forty eight hours ago. The pupils are keen to ask questions, but it’s nearly 6.00pm, and everyone has commitments, so after a vote of thanks and a round of applause, we pose for a few last photos and we are given a lovely gift of a bottle of wine each. Ms Fernandez says she will be in touch with Michelle to arrange a trip to the Lyndon Reserve in late May or early June when (fingers crossed) we may have some Osprey chicks for the pupils to see, as well as the adult birds.

And with that we drive off into the Northamptonshire night ~ for me just a short drive home and for Michelle, I hope, a well-earned rest after all her travelling in the last few days………

West African Video Diaries

The second group of eager Osprey Project staff and volunteers left yesterday to join Tim, Paul and John in West Africa. Following their departure, here’s what they’ve got to look forward to…

A West African Diary

We’re now a week into our trip to West Africa, and what a great week it has been. Here is a diary of our first eight days.

Tuesday 10th January

As you fly into Banjul it is not hard to see why this part of Africa is so good for Ospreys. Just across the Gambia River lies the vast Sine-Saloum delta, a huge area of shallow tidal water and mangrove swamps. From the air you can really get a sense of the scale of the place; a myriad of river channels winding their way through dense mangroves before finally reaching the sea and a series of small sandy islands. In a few days we’d be in a boat heading out to those islands, but for now it was great to get an appreciation of just how big an area it is. For the past three hours we had flown over the Sahara and then the arid interior of northern Senegal; this though, was completely different and just what you are looking for if you are a young Osprey arriving in West Africa for the first time.

Talking of which, it didn’t take long to see our first Osprey. Having arrived at Banjul and met our good friend and guide, JJ, we headed to the Paradise Inn Lodge at Tanji. The Paradise Inn would be our base for the next few nights and we were looking forward to meeting up with the staff who had been so friendly during our last stay here twelve months ago. As we were unloading the bags an adult female Osprey suddenly appeared overhead. It seemed a very fitting way to arrive; and, hopefully, a sign of things to come.

Wednesday 11th January

As we brushed our way through the last of the mangroves, it felt like we had never been away. Eleven months previously, on 8th February 2011, John, Paul and I had spent a wonderful last few hours at Tanji marsh – enjoying  really close views of several Ospreys, including a German-ringed male, 3PV,– before our flight back to the UK.  Now here we were again, this time accompanied by nine other members of the Rutland Osprey team and Janine Pannett from the Dyfi project. It was really exciting to be back.

As we scanned the tidal lagoon we soon picked up Ospreys in all the favoured spots; one perched on an island, another tucked away in the mangroves and a third male bird sitting on a dead branch in the middle of the lagoon. This latter bird took us straight back to that morning at Tanji in early February. John had managed to get some brilliant digi-scoped shots of a bird with what he described as a having a ‘dopy’ expression. One look down the scope now and he recognised this as the same individual; its prominent female-like breast-band clinching the identification. Like the two other adult birds at the marsh, it gave the distinctive chip call whenever another Osprey flew over-head. This kind of territorial behaviour is very typical of Ospreys on their wintering grounds and it often results in clear hierarchies at the best sites. This is very evident at Tanji. The adult birds tend to congregate on the larger, north section of the marsh, while the juveniles are relegated to the less-favourable south end.

It was great to be seeing Ospreys again, but there was lots more to see too. A large flock of Palm Swifts circled overhead, a male Shikra displayed to a female and Blue-bellied Rollers were dotted around all over the place. We soon added Pied Hornbill, Bearded Barbet and Yellow-billed Shrike to the list too. It wasn’t all African birds though; there were numerous migrants that reminded us of home – a nice flock of Curlew Sandpipers, Whimbrels giving their characteristic bubbling call, and Yellow Wagtails flying overhead. They all served to remind us that it is not just Ospreys who make the epic journey to sub-Saharan Africa each year. One thing that definitely didn’t resemble Rutland in January was the heat. By 11am the temperature was already topping 30 degrees Celsius and the sun was absolutely unrelenting. Time for a spot of lunch we decided.

After lunch we headed out to Bijoli Island; a small sandy island off the coast of Tanji. The shallow water surrounding the island provides a rich hunting ground for Ospreys and, as we approached the island cross the crystal blue sea, we could see numerous Ospreys perched along a sand bar at the northern end. One, a male, was colour-ringed and John and I inched our way closer in order to read the ring. Eventually we were close enough to make out 3PV through the heat haze. Like the bird at Tanji earlier in the day, this was one we had seen on our last morning in the Gambia last year.

We spent an excellent couple of hours on Bijoli, adding another fifteen or so Ospreys to our day’s total. That included another German bird, F83, that we had seen last year. This latter bird treated us to spectacular views as it fished just offshore- hitting the water several times very close in.  Surprisingly given the number of fish we saw jumping out of the water, the bird failed to catch and eventually landed on the shoreline to rest up. Nearby a large mixed flock of Audoin’s Gulls, Caspian Terns and Royal Terns provided a fitting end to a brilliant first day back in Gambia.

Thursday 12th January

An early start saw us leave the Paradise Inn soon after first light and drive half an hour south to Kartong. The early morning mist – not something you usually associate with West Africa – was a surprise and gave the morning a strangely English feel. The sun and more searing temperatures soon saw to that though!

At Kartong we met Colin Cross who runs the Kartong Bird Observatory and he joined us for a walk on the neighbouring reserve. Unlike last year there were no Ospreys, but a great selection of other wetland birds, including two Little Crakes – a rare bird for Gambia – and several Painted Snipe. Purple Herons lurkied stealthily in the shallows and several  Wood Sandpipers darted up and down the shore. Two Marsh Harriers quartered the reecbeds and other familiar migrants from Europe – Tree Pipits, Chiffchaffs, Sedge Warblers and Sub-alpine Warblers- flitted around scrub bordering the ponds.

As we enjoyed a well-earned drink back at Colin’s house we were treated to excellent views of perhaps the rarest bird of the morning, an Allen’s Gallinule.

From Colin’s we headed into Kartong to meet up with some grade 9 teenagers who are part of our schools link. Over the past year we have raised more than £5000 for our education work in the Gambia and this trip is giving us a chance to get the project off the ground. JJ and I told the students about our work at Rutland Water and the Osprey’s migration. The importance of education was emphasised by the fact that even some of the teachers took some persuading that birds like Ospreys migrate from the UK to Africa. John Wright’s brilliant illustrations in the children’s book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ we have produced with our West Africa work in mind, really helped to explain the story. After a couple of interviews with two students about their life at Kartong – something we’ll show to the English pupils – we were shown round the school’s vegetable garden which is tendered to by the pupils themselves.  It was a really good visit.

After lunch we set out on a boat trip along the River Allahein, which forms the southern border between Gambia and Senegal. As we prepared to board the boat a German-ringed Osprey, O18, crashed into the water less than a couple of hundred metres downstream and pulled out a huge fish. Another Osprey appeared as we headed towards the river mouth and it turned out to be an old friend. Last year Rolf Wahl, who monitors the Ospreys in Orleans Forest in central France, was delighted that we managed to find one of his regular breeding birds wintering on the Allahein. We had hoped to see him again this year and, sure enough, John quickly confirmed that the bird flying towards us had an orange ring on his right leg; it was Rolf’s Osprey. We wondered if the bottle of Champagne he had promised us last year for finding one of his favourite birds, had now become two?  We enjoyed several really close views of the bird before it disappeared off into the mangroves.

During the course of the two hours in the boat we saw numerous other Ospreys, but not in the same numbers as last year. Yellow-billed Storks, several Sacred Ibis and a lovely group of Slender-billed Gulls ensured that there was always something to look at though. We were even treated to a brief scuffle between an Osprey and an African Fish Eagle. Finally a Nightingale in full song was another reminder that it is not just Ospreys who make the long flight to West Africa from the UK each winter.

Friday 13th January

A visit to Gambia wouldn’t be complete without a trip upriver and so today we drove inland to Tendaba on the south shore of the Gambia River. We broke up the four-hour drive with some birding en route, stopping in a nice area of forest just east of Banjul where we added White-crowned Robin Chat to the bird list and enjoyed some great views of Collobus monkeys. Back on the road we continued east along the south bank of the river, passing through arid scrub and forest. As we got further inland we began to encounter increasing numbers of birds of prey. Up until now we had only seen Hooded Vutures but they were now joined joined by White-backed and Ruppel’s. Yellow-billed Kites were as numerous as ever, and recorded several other raptor species from the bus – including a couple of Lanner Falcons, Dark-chanting Goshawk and Lizard Buzzard.

After a stop for lunch – where we saw an Osprey fishing in a tributary of the Gambia – we arrived at Tendaba. The temperature was now in the high 30s and there was nothing for it but to relax for the afternoon. The camp at Tendaba has a nice seating area on the shore of the river – which even at this point, some 75 miles inland, is still about a mile wide – the perfect place to while away a few hours as we waited for the temperature to become a bit more bearable. Almost as soon as we sat down an Osprey came into view and over the course of the next couple of hours we watched two others fishing.

By 5pm the temperature had dropped by no more than a few degrees, but unperturbed we had a nice evening walk from the camp. Undoubted highlight was a White-crested Helmet Shrike, a striking black and white shrike with a bright yellow eye and spectacular crest.

Saturday 14th January

An early start saw us cross the Gambia by boat at dawn. We were heading to the creeks on the north shore of the river where the mangroves are home to a wide array of river species. The sun appeared over the eastern horizon as we crossed the river and, right on cue, two fishing Ospreys appeared straight away. One made a successful dive within minutes.

As we entered one of the creeks, JJ caught sight of a Finfoot, undoubtedly one of the most mysterious and shy birds we were likely to see this morning. True to form it slinked off into the mangroves before any of the rest of us had a chance to see it. For the next two hours we snaked our way through the mangroves. Highlights included a very close view of the diminutive Malachite Kingfisher, a pair of displaying Blue-breasted Kingfishers, an immature White-backed Night Heron, skulking deep in the mangroves and a lovely group of White-throated Bee-eaters. Four Wooly-necked Storks were the first of the trip as was a female Montagu’s Harrier which circled over the boat, allowing everyone on board to get really good views. And it wasn’t just birds; we found two huge Monitor Lizards resting on mangroves beside the creek.

As we headed back across the main river an Osprey skimmed the water to wash its talons – a fitting end to an excellent few hours.

After a break during the middle of the day, we headed to an area are of scrub and open grassland known as Tendaba airfield. It turned out to be a brilliant few hours. At this time of year, in the heart of the dry season, finding water gets increasingly difficult. Freshwater watering holes become a magnet to birds and waiting by one proved very successful. We saw our first Grasshopper Buzzard – with beautiful chestnut-coloured wings –  coming down to drink. A Long-crested Eagle was the next raptor to draw admiring looks from the group, particularly one individual which perched within 150 metres of us. As we watched it, a group of Swalow-tailed Bee-eaters appeared too. This though was all just an appetiser for what was to come. JJ found a Matial Eagle perched on a dead tree close to the path we had just walked down. This magnificent eagle was a first for everyone in the group and we spent a long while admiring it down the scopes. With a six-a-half foot wingspan, it is not the largest eagle, but it certainly looks the most powerful , its long legs and sleek body giving it a ferociously powerful appearance. This individual had obviously just enjoyed a good meal judging by its bulging crop which appeared to be not far off the size of a tennis ball. Eventually the bird headed off, its vast wingspan giving it the appearance of a flying barn door!

We continued our way through the savannah, adding several more raptors, including a Dark-chanting Goshawk and a couple of Marsh Harriers to the day’s list. A large group of Avocets feeding on an area of open water at the southern end of the airfield provided a reminder of home and just as the sun was setting three Warthogs ran across the open grassland.

We weren’t finished there though. JJ knew a spot just down the road where we stood a good chance of Nightjars. We arrived just after dark and waited. We knew there was a chance of seeing Standard-winged Nightjar, but nothing really prepared us for seeing this remarkable bird. Not long after we arrived, one suddenly appeared. There can be few more graceful birds in the world – the two trailing feathers on each wing giving males the most incredible appearance. We enjoyed several close views of one or two males as well as a couple of Red-necked Nightjars thrown in for good measure. It was a truly memorable end to the day.

Sunday 15th January

Although West Africa doesn’t hold the same number of large mammals as East Africa, there are still one or two that we really hoped to see. With that in mind, this morning we headed to Kiang West National Park, just a few kilometres from Tendaba. The park is dominated by savannah woodland with freshwater watering holes here and there. The watering holes are important to a range of species and, sure enough, we came across a large family party of Baboons at the second area of freshwater that we visited. They were joined by three Warthogs – apparently the two species often move around together. Nearby, an African Hobby –  with a much more buffy breast than their Eurasian counterparts – was hawking insects and a Grasshopper Buzzard slinked off through the woodland as we approached.

Later on we stopped in an area of open grassland and were rewarded with great views of a pair of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills. These huge birds cut an unmistakable figure in the savannah as they lumber slowly around. Nearby we flushed a Temminck’s Courser whilst Wheatears, Hoopoes and Tree Pipits reminded us just how important West Africa is for migrant birds from Europe.

Finally, as we headed back to the camp for lunch we had fantastic views of another Martial Eagle; undoubtedly the most powerful-looking eagle any of us had seen.

At 4pm we headed back out across the river to the creeks on the north shore. A group of six or seven Bottle-nosed Dolphins was an unexpected but nonetheless very welcome surprise as we headed across. Unlike yesterday it was almost high tide as we made our way slowly through the mangroves. The tide meant that the various Kingfisher species weren’t as active, but we did manage to find both White-backed and Black-crowned Night Herons hidden amongst dense vegetation and an even more well-camouflaged African Scops Owl.  A young male Montague’s Harrier put on a good show as it displayed to another pair and we had great views of a six foot Crocodile that was resting on the side of the creek. After a few minutes it slid quietly and ominously back into the water.

By the time we got back to the main river, the sun was getting low in the sky and the river had become completely flat calm.  An adult female Osprey appeared with a fish and then a juvenile male hit the water close to the boat. It missed first time, but wasted little time diving again, this time successfully. John’s photos later confirmed that the female was unringed and the young male had a metal ring on its left leg. What was really significant though was how easily the juvenile bird had caught a fish. On flat calm evenings like tonight, the fishing at places such as Tendaba is very easy for the birds and if you are a young Osprey this makes it a very good place to spend the winter.

Monday 16th January

Since we arrived in West Africa last week, we have been checking the Dyfi birds satellite data in the hope that we might be able to tweak our itinerary in order to try and see one of them. Einion is still at the Simone Lagoon just south of Dakar in Senegal, but as we left Tendaba this morning, we thought we might have a chance with Dulas. He has spent most of the winter on the upper reaches of the Gambia River and in recent days has been perched very close to the North Bank main road, close to the village of Panchang. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

We knew from Emyr Evans (Manager of the Dyfi Osprey Project) that Dulas had spent much of the previous afternoon perched less than 200 metres from the main road about a kilometre outside Panchang, on the edge of an expansive wetland. We arrived there just after 11am and got out of the bus expectantly. I think that both myself and Janine shared the naïve belief that we would step off the bus and see  Dulas straight away. Sadly, that wasn’t the case! For the next two hours we walked in searing heat through the grassland bordering the eastern part of the swamp. With fourteen pairs of eyes on the look-out, we hoped that someone would find him, but sadly, there was no sign. We weren’t helped by a gusty southerly wind which probably meant Dulas was sheltering somewhere out of sight. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that, although there were open areas in the swamp, the reeds growing in the shallow water were seven or eight foot in height – making scanning all the low perched just about impossible. Unperturbed we carried on, and must have covered about four miles before we finally gave up for lunch, with absolutely no Ospreys to show for it.   We had however come across a nice selection of other birds, including several juvenile Beaundouin Snake Eagles, a species recently split from the European Short-toed Eagle.

We had lunch beside an area of water used by the locals for washing and probably by Dulas for fishing. Unlike many of the water bodies in the area, apparently this one never dries out – making it good for humans and Ospreys alike. This means that should Dulas decide to spend the rest of his year here, he should have plenty of food.

After lunch we just had time to check the western end of the swamp. Despite another hour’s worth of searching we still had no luck and, frustratingly, we had to give up at around 2:30pm.Several stunning Red-throated Bee-eaters,  a melanistic Gabbar Goshawk and a Black Crake helped to ease the disappointment, but nevertheless, it was a real shame that we hadn’t managed to find him. The trip however had at least given Janine the chance to see Dulas’s wintering site and the fact that we now know it is a good one where there is little competition from other Ospreys for food – we didn’t see any others during the four hours – raises hoped that the young male will survive the summer in Africa. Let’s hope so.

Once back on the bus we headed back west towards Senegal and the Sine-Saloum delta. The road took us through typical savannah grassland where Brown Snake Eagles and especially Montague’s Harriers were numerous. We finally arrived at Toubacouta, on the edge of the delta at 7:30pm, with one or two sun burnt faces to show for it.

Tuesday 16th January

One of the highlights of last year’s month in West Africa was our visit to Ile d’Oiseaux – a sandy island on the edge of the Sine-Saloum delta – and so it was with a great delta of excitement that we boarded a boat at the fishing village of Missirah just after first light this morning for a return trip.

As we headed towards the mouth of the delta we passed several Ospreys perched in the mangroves as well as three African Fish Eagles and a couple of Goliath Herons. Several flocks of Slender-billed Gulls looked even more pink than usual in the early morning sun and Sandwich, Caspian, Royal and Little Terns fished near the boat.

After an hour-and-a-half we reached Ile d’Oiseaux. On the face of it the island doesn’t look particularly noteworthy, but look a bit closer and you begin to appreciate what a special place it is. A small flock of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were hawking insects, several Crested Larks flitted though the vegetation and Pallid Swifts were feeding above our heads. At the northern end of the island a sandy spit runs out into the sea and as we approached the island we could see ten Ospreys dotted along it. Once on dry land we checked them for colour rings. A German bird flew off before we had a chance to read its ring, but a white-ringed Scottish female (white/black KL) turned out to be one we had seen in exactly the same place last year. This wasn’t surprising – adult Ospreys always return to the same place each year – but it was still great to see a returning bird. And what a great place to spend the winter!  The rest of the birds that we could see were unringed. One of them, an adult male, dived and caught a fish just a few metres in front of us. For the adult birds fishing here is obviously very easy. This also makes it a great place for juveniles to practice fishing; and judging by an unsuccessful dive a juvenile made shortly afterwards, many of them need the practice.

A couple of hundred metres from the island the low tide had revealed another sand bar, and a quick scan revealed thirteen Ospreys sitting on the sand, some with fish and some without. Like last year there was a noticeable lack of any aggression – presumably because food is so plentiful. Beyond the Ospreys a large flock of Pelicans included both Pink-backed a White and it made for a spectacular sight.

Sadly heat haze meant there was no way we could check any of these birds for rings, but it was just great to be there.

On the way back to Missirah we passed several more perched Ospreys, meaning that we had probably seen around 40 birds during the course of the morning; significantly more than the population of England and Wales combined!

 

Africa Calling

For the Rutland Osprey Project, January can only mean one thing… THE TRIP TO WEST AFRICA. Over the last few weeks we have been reminiscing about last year’s trip and for many months we have been thinking about what we are hoping to achieve this time. Last year, we had two main aims; firstly to establish links with people in West Africa, and secondly, to look for colour-ringed Ospreys.

One of the highlights of the trip was the visit to Tanji Primary School near Banjul in The Gambia. Here is a video of Tim talking to a group of children about our work at Rutland Water, focussing on Ospreys and migration.

From that moment, the Osprey Migration Foundation was born. Since February last year, we have been developing a wildlife education programme for Gambian schools, with Ospreys as the keystone species. We decided to raise money to provide educational resources for schools located in areas that are important for Ospreys and other European migrant birds, such as Tanji. These resources, including books, optics and computer equipment, will allow the children to learn more about the birds and other wildlife that live close to their communities. With the help of local Gambian bird guide, Junkung Jadama, we will also organise fieldtrips for school children – allowing them to see all this wonderful wildlife at first hand. Furthermore, we’ll link schools in the Gambia with schools in Rutland, allowing the children to develop friendships, with Ospreys as the common link. There is also the potential for similar links to be formed along the bird’s migration route – with schools elsewhere in Europe and North Africa.

Tim got the ball rolling by running the Berlin Marathon in September last year and raised over £4000 and with the help of Andy and Anne Strang we raised more money with a second-hand book sale. What a fantastic start! So far this money has been used to purchase 12 binoculars, a telescope and a laptop for JJ to use when he visits Gambian schools long after we have returned to Rutland in February. With the help of volunteer Ken Davies we have also written a childrens book, illustrated by Field Officer John Wright, about an Osprey’s journey from Rutland to West Africa. We will be taking copies of ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ with us to give to all the schools we are going to visit. But that’s not all! We have now successfully established several links between schools in The Gambia and Rutland. Tanji has been linked with Whissendine Primary School and St Nicholas Primary School in Cottesmore and they have given us a whole host of goodies to take with us when we visit the children in just a few days time. These include letters, football shirts and videos the children have made documenting their lives in Rutland. Not only are we visiting Tanji school but during the trip we will be visiting three other primary schools and a secondary school to tell them all about the Ospreys in Rutland and what they get up to when they’re not overwintering in West Africa. Here’s a photo of Tim with Class 3 at Whissendine this morning.

 

Over the month-long trip last year we saw hundreds of Ospreys, over 270 other bird species and identified 22 different colour-ringed birds. Of the colour-ringed Ospreys, 13 were German, seven Scottish, one French and one English. The English Osprey was the adult female YU from the Lake District.

This year, we are hoping to see many more colour-ringed Ospreys and even though AW and 09 may be too far away for us to visit, you never know, we may be lucky enough to see an Osprey from Rutland, or even one from Wales. If you followed Autumnwatch last year you would have seen Osprey expert Roy Dennis track down Einion, one of the Dyfi chicks, in Senegal. If you missed Autumnwatch, here is a clip of the exciting moment. Many thanks to BBC Springwatch and Autumnwatch for allowing the Dyfi Osprey Project to show this and many other clips on their website.

 

We will be updating the website several times over the course of the trip so watch this space! Also be sure to check out our video diaries.

You can read about last winter’s trip on a special blog that the team wrote during the month-long expedition, www.rutlandospreys.blogspot.com.