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French juvenile, orange 5V, fishing at the Somone Lagoon

A Somone spectacular and a lasting legacy

Over the course of three visits to West Africa, myself and the Rutland Ospreys team have been treated to some truly memorable days. Our first trip to Ile d’Oisseaux in the Sine-Saloum delta where we saw 14 Ospreys perched within a few metres of each other will stick long in the memory, as will the three days we spent at Djoudj National Park, watching Ospreys – including one from the Lake District – alongside tens of thousands of Garganey. We might just have bettered all that, though, last Friday at the Somone Lagoon in northern Senegal.

The drive from Banjul to Somone along dusty roads riddled with deep and unforgiving pot holes is a long one. As we made slow progress north, I hoped the hot and arduous journey would be worth it. Having spoken to Roy Dennis and Lucy Smith who visited the Somone Lagoon – a shallow tidal lagoon situated about 70km south of Dakar – last year for BBC Autumnwatch when they successfully tracked down Einion from the Dyfi Osprey Project, I knew there would be plenty of Ospreys, but with only two full days, would we have enough time to see it at its best?

We arrived tired but excited on Friday evening and, after dropping our bags off, we made the short walk down to the northern part of the lagoon. Early signs were encouraging. We could see three Ospreys fishing the lagoon, and after finding a clearing in the mangroves we managed to get quite close to them. The problem, though, was that the birds kept disappearing behind the mangroves and out of view. Not much good when you are trying to check them for colour rings. Perhaps we needed a plan B? That, though, would have to wait until the morning; with the tide coming in quickly we didn’t want to get stranded – quite literally – in deep water . All was not lost , though – as we made our way back to the hotel we came across a colour-ringed Osprey sitting on the mud. It was blue FW – a visitor from Scotland.

Next morning, as we ate our breakfast we thought we had temporarily been teleported back to Rutland. It had nothing to do with what we were eating, but rather, what we could hear. There, as dawn was breaking over the lagoon, was the unmistakable high-pitched display call of an Osprey! But, hang on, Ospreys only display on the breeding grounds. Don’t they? What was going on? We rushed out to have a look. Sure enough, there was an adult female Osprey displaying no more than one hundred feet above our heads. We weren’t the object of her attentions though – she was displaying to another Osprey, that looked like a female too. This wasn’t a half-hearted affair, this was full on display – legs dangling and rising a falling like an aerial roller coaster. Although we have seen plenty of aggression between adult Ospreys on the wintering grounds, we have never seen them displaying. I guess though, that it must happen now and again. We have noted at many of the sites we have visited that hierarchies exist between the birds – and we were clearly witnessing one such hierarchical battle. It was fascinating.

After breakfast we decided that our best bet was to head to the mouth of the river. Here a narrow channel of water links the lagoon to the sea; and it looked perfect for fishing Ospreys. Crucially, the narrow channel would also mean the birds would pass quite close – exactly what we needed if we were to identify any colour-ringed birds.

Although the tide was still too high for many birds to be fishing, there was a juvenile female sitting on a sandy island in the middle of the channel. We could see she had a metal ring on her right and, after twenty minutes or so, she shuffled on the sand revealing an orange ring on her left leg with the inscription 5.V. It was a youngster from Orleans Forest in France. A great start.

After a quick look out to sea, where numerous Pomarine Skuas were passing just offshore, we decided that, given the state of the tide, we would be better to return later in the afternoon.

By early afternoon the tide was beginning to fall and, as it did, the Ospreys began to appear. We got settled in next to the channel and waited. And we didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes of arriving 5.V appeared overhead, circled the channel a couple of times and then plunged into the water, no more than 30 metres away. The crash as she hit the water was so loud that it sounded like a person, not an Osprey, had dived into the water! The young female emerged without a fish but, if it was a sign of things to come, we were in for a treat.

French juvenile, orange 5V, fishing at the Somone Lagoon

Within a few minutes another Osprey – this time an adult female – appeared overhead. She too was ringed, but with just a metal clip ring on her left leg. Perhaps she spent her summers in Sweden where fewer Ospreys are colour-ringed? The views were so good that through binoculars it was possible to count almost every streak on her beautifully-marked underside. We had certainly picked a good spot.

No sooner had the metal-ringed female disappeared, than another two Ospreys arrived from our seaward side. One was ringed – and thanks to John Wright’s smart camera work, we immediately identified it as a German-ringed adult male (black 3HE). Neither bird dived, but the views were incredible. And the Ospreys just kept on coming. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, we identified at least twenty individuals, some ringed, some not. At times it was no exaggeration to say we really didn’t know where to look with up to five birds fishing just a few metres in front of us. Several birds caught fish in the channel, including 5.V who dived very close to us for a second time; this time pulling out a good-sized fish. I even managed to capture it on camera (see video below). It was especially pleasing that several of the birds were ringed and by the end of the afternoon we had identified another six colour-ringed birds, all thanks to John’s camera. It had been a truly spectacular few hours.

A Scottish-ringed juvenile male at the Somone Lagoon

Unringed juvenile male at the Somone Lagoon

Next day we returned to the same spot and, although the Osprey activity didn’t quite live up to the previous day, we still managed to increase our colour-ring tally for the site to nine. The only thing missing was a Rutland Osprey. But I suppose that gives us a good excuse to go back again soon!

Once back in the Gambia, we just had time to check out some of our favoured haunts around the Tanji area, before catching our flight home on Tuesday. A morning on Tanji beach increased our colour ring tally for  the trip to 21 but it was noticeable that there were fewer Ospreys fishing that part of the coast this year. All reports suggest that the last rainy season was a particularly wet one and we have certainly noticed more standing freshwater than usual this year. Perhaps this has resulted in some of the juveniles who would normally have been forced to head further south, to have remained in northern Senegal for longer?

And so on Tuesday afternoon we headed to the airport and said our goodbyes to our friend and guide JJ who, once again, has led our trip wonderfully well. Before we left we discussed how we plan to expand our wildlife education programme in Gambian schools over the coming months. Thanks to money we have raised over the past year we will be extending the project to five different schools. We plan to provide each with at least two computers and internet access to allow the students to follow the progress of Ospreys at Rutland Water and elsewhere via webcams and satellite tracking. In addition JJ and colleagues will take the students out on field trips to help them enjoy the diverse array of wildlife around them; and in doing so emphasise the need to protect it. It is through such links that the future of our migratory birds can be safeguarded and a new generation of African conservationists and bird guides be inspired. If that is one of the legacies of our trips to West Africa then it is a very good one. It seems apt, therefore, to finish with a poem about Ospreys read by a student at St Martins School in Kartong – one of the first schools to be involved in the project.

'The male' from Orleans Forest photographed by John Wright on our first visit to the River Allahein in 2011

Friends Old and New

It’s always nice to catch up with old friends, and we have been doing just that during our second week in The Gambia. We know from satellite-tracking and ringing studies that adult Ospreys nearly always return to the same place each winter, and that’s certainly the case for two of the colour-ringed birds we have seen in the past few days. Two years ago, in January 2011, our friend Rolf Wahl, who monitors the expanding Osprey population in Orleans Forest, was delighted to hear that we had found one of his favourite French Ospreys wintering on the River Allahein. In fact he was so pleased that he said there was a bottle of champagne waiting for us in France. A year later we saw ‘the male’ again (the orange ring which Rolf fitted to the bird as an adult in 2004 bears the male sign), fishing the same section of river on the Gambia/Senegal boarder. This meant that on Wednesday last week, when we visited the River Allahein with the second group of Osprey project volunteers, we were going for a hat-trick. At 4pm, with the tide falling, we set out on a boat and headed towards the mouth of the river. As usual we checked every Osprey we saw for a colour-ring. We were distracted for a while by an African Fish Eagle circling overhead, a Giant Kingfisher staring intently into the water and then by a group of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, looking resplendent in the afternoon light as they perched beside the river. Having reached the crystal-blue sea, we turned round and headed back inland, towards the mangroves. As we approached the wide-section of river favoured by ‘the male’, an Osprey appeared, right on cue. John Wright fired off a few photos and, sure enough, it was our French friend! He circled directly over the boat, close enough for his orange ring to be visible through binoculars. It was great to see him spending his thirteenth winter very close to the village of Kartong, where we have made many new friends on this trip. The only question left to be answered is whether we’ve now qualified for a crate of champagne in Orleans? One for Rolf to answer, I think.

‘The male’ from Orleans Forest photographed by John Wright on our first visit to the River Allahein in 2011

‘The male’ wasn’t the only familiar Osprey that we saw this week. On Friday we took the group out to Bijoli Island, about a mile off-shore from Tanji. By the time got to the island, just a short boat ride from the mainland, there were several Ospreys dotted around the shore, eating fish caught in the shallow water surrounding us. One of them had a distinctive – and very familiar-looking – white head. A quick check of the bird’s legs revealed a black colour-ring on its left leg, with the inscription 3PV. Like ‘the male’ it was an Osprey we had seen at Tanji and Bijoli in both 2011 and 2012. A second hat-trick. Whilst it has been great to see some familiar Ospreys, it is also encouraging that we’ve identified plenty of new birds, too. The most interesting was a red-ringed juvenile female we saw on Bijoli Island. Her red ring – and the inscription, 339 – showed that she was a young bird was from Latvia. We’re still waiting for confirmation, but I suspect that this was the first ever Latvian Osprey to be seen in The Gambia. This is not because the population in Latvia is particularly small, but because the majority of the birds from that part of Europe winter much further east. Latvian birds, like those from neighbouring Estonia and Finland usually head south through Eastern Europe and the Middle East before continuing south into Sudan and then onto central and East Arica. Some will winter in Cameroon, whilst others head south along the rift valley towards South Africa. It is rare for them to head further west and so it seems likely that our bird had got lost on its first flight south. Fortunately, by stumbling across Bijoli Island, she had found an excellent place to spend the winter. Red 339 means we’ve now identified ten colour-ringed birds so far – including four new Scottish birds, four from Germany and ‘the male’ from Orleans Forest.

Like usual, the morning we spend on Bijoli Island was one of the highlights of the trip. It is also a great place to appreciate what a vitally important area this is for migrant birds from Europe. At the southern end of the island, a mixed flock of gulls and terns held many winter visitors. A group of very smart-looking Audouin’s Gulls was particularly noteworthy because it contained at least 13 different colour-ringed birds from Spain. Nearby 100 or so Little Terns were resting on the sand with the odd Sandwich Tern dotted in amongst them. Both species will be spending the winter in West Africa having migrated from the UK or other parts of Western Europe. The fish-rich waters provide plenty of food, but they hold threats too. As we headed out to the island our boat man gave me a ring he had taken off a dead Sandwich Tern – a victim of an old fishing net. What a sad end for a bird that had flown 3000 miles from Denmark to winter here. On the same day the man had rescued a Little Tern, which had been ringed in the UK, from another net. The tern was lucky to have survived. Fishing is vitally important to the Gambian economy, but discarded nets undoubtedly pose a real threat to migrant birds, including Ospreys. With this in mind, we’ll be taking a group of students from Tanji school out to Bijoli Island next week to clear the island of old nets. Let’s hope we can show them some fishing Ospreys at the same time too. Perhaps we’ll even find an old friend or two, whilst making new ones at the same time.

Yellow 68 - a Scottish-ringed Osprey with a fish at the River Allahein

Ospreys in The Gambia

Personally speaking, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching Ospreys fishing. A perfect example as to why came at 1:30pm on Wednesday, on our first full day in West Africa. Myself and a group of project staff and volunteers were sitting beside the River Allahein, which forms the southern border between Gambia and Senegal with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters trilling as they dashed back and forth overhead. Nearby a Nightingale –a winter visitor from the UK – was in excellent voice as it sung from a dense thicket. Several Ospreys had already taken advantage of the receding tide, and caught a lunchtime meal, when another bird appeared. It was an adult female. She circled in front of us; eyes fixed firmly on the water 75 feet below. Suddenly she folded her wings and crashed into the water, just a few metres away. We were so close that we almost got wet with the splash! She struggled for a few moments on the water’s surface and then heaved a good-sized fish out. As she took off we could make out a red ring on her left leg – suggesting she was probably Scottish. After the obligatory shake to dry-off she headed into the mangroves to enjoy her hard-earned meal. I’ve been lucky enough to see Ospreys catch fish many times, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one quite that close, and certainly not with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters overhead. As an added bonus, when John Wright zoomed in on his photos of the bird, he could read the ring number – it was red/white 7R; a female ringed by Roy Dennis in Easter Ross in 2001.

Over the course of the next few hours several more Ospreys fished the river, although none quite as spectacularly as 7R. Among them was another colour-ringed bird, yellow/white 68. It had been a fantastic start to our three-week trip and that’s without even mentioning the Slender-billed Gulls, African Spoonbills and Four-banded Sandgrouse that formed the supporting cast for the star of the show. A Scottish Osprey.

Yellow 68 – a Scottish-ringed Osprey with a fish at the River Allahein

Although we’d be very unlikely to better the views we’d had of 7R fishing, if we were going to do it anywhere, it was at Bijoli Island. This small sandy island off the coast at Tanji is home to a colony of Caspian Terns and Grey-headed Gulls and is also one of the best places to watch fishing Ospreys in The Gambia. The trick is to get there as the tide is falling. As the water recedes, shallow reefs surrounding the island are revealed, making fish far easier to catch. With this in mind we set off in a boat from Tanji at 9am on Friday morning.

From the shoreline Bijoli Island looked nothing more than a sandy speck and, even as we landed there, the tide was only just starting to go out. The crystal clear early morning light illuminated a mixed flock of waders, gulls and terns. Among them was a group of almost 100 Little Terns, a single Lesser-crested Tern, Audoin’s and Slender-billed Gulls and a few Kentish Plovers. As we hoped, the first Osprey – a juvenile – didn’t take long to appear. It completed a circuit of the island and then crashed into the water, just offshore. It is easy to tell if an Osprey has caught a fish because, if they have done so, they usually struggle on the water’s surface for a few seconds before attempting to take off again. On this occasion though the young female virtually bounced off the surface –a sure sign she had failed.

The tide was really starting to fall, and as it do so, more Ospreys appeared, most of them juveniles. By now the young Ospreys have been in Africa for several months, but they are still some way off mastering fishing completely – and the repeated failed dives of the various juveniles we watched over the course of the next couple of hours certainly backed that up. Eventually, though, one by one, they did all catch fish. Like at the Allahein on Wednesday, some of the views were really spectacular as they hit the shallow water surrounding the island. Not only that, but all of the birds ate their ctch within a few hundred metres of us, either on the rocky reefs, or on the island itself. In doing so they attracted the attention of Turnstones – who did their best to steal morsels of fish – and Grey Herons. One particular heron kept hassling the Ospreys as they landed with their fish and it seemed particularly interested in a Needlefish that a German Osprey caught.   At least three of the birds we saw were ringed and, with the aid of John’s camera, we were able to read two of them – one German and one Scottish.

By midday the tide was almost completely out, with the various Ospreys scattered around the island; seemingly very happy in each other’s company. Like at the Sine-Saloum Delta in neighbouring Senegal, where we have enjoyed some brilliant Osprey watching on our previous West Africa trips, the fishing around Bijoli Island is so good that there is no need for any aggression between the birds, especially when most are juveniles. So whether you were an Osprey, or an Osprey-watcher, there really was no better place to be!

A mixed flock of gulls and terns at Bijoli Island

Aside from giving us the opportunity to watch and study Ospreys on their wintering grounds, the trip is providing us with the chance to develop the wildlife education project that we set up here last year. One of the schools we have been working with is St Martin’s School in Kartong in the south of The Gambia.  Over the past year our friend and colleague, Junkung Jadama, has been working with the students to help them improve their knowledge of wildlife, bird migration and Ospreys. So after a morning at the nearby marsh – where we identified another Scottish colour-ringed Osprey – we popped into the school on Saturday to catch up with the students, show them some videos of the Manton Bay Ospreys and play them a video message recorded by students at St Mark’s Church of England Academy in London who have been learning about Ospreys as part of their year 8 Geography classes. In return the Gambian students read some superb poems they had written about Osprey migration and performed a short drama about the need to protect birds in The Gambia. It was a great morning – and exciting to be linking students separated by 3000 miles all because of Osprey migration.

Showing students at Kartong school some videos from Manton Bay

The students watching a video message from a school in London

The students at Kartong school

So, all in all, it’s been a great start to the trip. What we need now is to find a Rutland Osprey. Watch this space!

An English Osprey in Senegal. John Wright photographed white/black YU from the Lake District at Djoudj National Park in February 2011

Africa awaits for the Rutland Osprey team

We may be in the midst of a damp and miserable winter in the UK, but in just two months’ time, adult Ospreys from Rutland Water and other parts of Western Europe will be beginning their spring migration. For now, though, the vast majority of the birds will be wintering on the West Coast of Africa, anywhere from Mauritania to the Ivory Coast. And next week, the Rutland Osprey Project will be joining them!

On Tuesday myself and the team will be flying to Banjul for three weeks in Gambia and Senegal. During that time we’ll be joined by two groups of project volunteers who will each be with us for one week of Osprey-watching on the coast of Gambia. We’ll then be heading north into Senegal to visit the Somone Lagoon. It’s the place where Roy Dennis and BBC Autumnwatch managed to track down Einion, one of the juvenile Ospreys satellite-tagged by the Dyfi Osprey Project.

Following the sad loss of 09(98) in Morocco in September, we don’t have any Ospreys from Rutland Water with satellite transmitters, but we will be sure to check every Osprey we see for colour rings. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find one of our own? Whatever, the case, we know we’ll see Ospreys from all over Europe. Over the course of two trips to West Africa we’ve identified 29 colour-ringed Ospreys. Over half of them have been from Germany, but we’ve also seen birds from Scotland, the Lake District, France and Spain. So, it’s about time we found one from Rutland Water!

An English Osprey in Senegal. John Wright photographed white/black YU from the Lake District at Djoudj National Park in February 2011

Aside from being a great opportunity to observe Ospreys on their wintering grounds, the trip will also enable us to develop the project’s education work in West Africa. Over the past year we have been piloting a project in three Gambian schools, whereby local bird guide, Junkung Jadama, has been taking the students out on fieldtrips and teaching them about Ospreys and bird migration. We’ll be discussing with JJ, and others, how we develop this further.  The next stage of the project will involve providing the Gambian schools with computers to enable the students to follow satellite-tagged Ospreys on their migrations back to the UK, watch webcam froms various nests around Europe and also get in touch with schools located elsewhere on the flyway. This, we hope, will encourage the young people to take more of an interest in nature conservation and provide opportunities that, otherwise, they simply wouldn’t have. We’re working closely with Rotary International on this and are especially grateful to Bill Hill and Melton Rotary (as well as Stamford-Burghley Rotary) for their valuable assistance so far.  Here’s a video which we filmed during our trip last year.

During the trip we’ll be posting regular updates on the website and also via our Facebook and Twitter pages. So watch this space!