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Linda Jones meets Awa for the first time at Sandele

Ken’s Africa Diary – Days 4 and 5

In today’s diary, volunteer Ken Davies recounts the search for a Rutland Osprey in The Gambia…

Friday 17th January :

Did I ever in my wildest dreams think I would be pushing open the shutters onto a West African early morning like this? The lush vegetation is just stirring in the breeze, the Ocean is pounding the shore, and my terrace is the ideal watching and listening post as the Bulbuls burble, the Babblers babble, and the lithe little Sunbirds flit around. An occasional Osprey flies along the beach in the early light. I bring a chair out and sit for a while. I can afford a leisurely start this morning, as breakfast is not till 8.00, but there is still an air of excitement all around, since today we will begin the search for 5F(12) at Tanji Marsh. This Rutland female Osprey has been seen and photographed recently by our friend Chris Wood, so hopes are high that we might be able to find her in the same area.
Before that, JJ and Alhagie arrive in the bus to take Tim and the two Bills into Banjul, where they are to finalise the purchase and setting up of two desk-top computers in schools at Kartong and Tanji, with funds generously donated by Melton Mowbray Rotary Club. Much of the background work has already been done, but it is essential that the final details are ironed out this morning, to ensure that the schools get maximum benefit from this initiative. It will in effect double the number of computers in each school, and, with the addition of an internet connection, will enable them to take a full and active part in the Flyways Project and World Osprey Week in March.

Alhagie has brought his daughter Awa to spend the morning with Linda at Sandele. Awa is a 22 year old student, and Linda has been sponsoring her through her first year at College, where she is studying Business Administration. They have never met before, so this is quite a moment, and they are both clearly delighted to see one another. Awa greets us all individually at breakfast and talks animatedly with Linda about what she has been doing. They are planning to visit a nearby Reptile Farm this morning, and then watch a demonstration of jewellery-making by a young silver-smith who lives and works at Sandele, before joining us all for lunch.

Linda Jones meets Awa for the first time at Sandele

Linda Jones meets Awa for the first time at Sandele

Meanwhile I return to my terrace for half an hour before a planned walk along the beach to the point. I have brought a book with me called ‘In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’, but it occurs to me that a book about the quest for an allegedly extinct bird may not be an appropriate choice of reading material as we begin our search for 5F! I don’t want to jinx the search, so I lay the book aside and meet up with a few others for the morning beach walk. There are constant stops to check Ospreys for rings, but all are unringed this morning. On the landward side of the beach, Lavender Waxbills and Yellow-crowned Gonoleks provide colourful diversions, and a Harrier Hawk is again prying into the bark of nearby palms. Paul photographs a sitting Blue-bellied Roller, but is then accosted by a local juice-seller, who seems to think the bird is his own personal property and now demands that Paul buys a drink from him in return for the photo! Paul explains that wildlife is owned by no individual, but is part of the heritage of the global community………or words to that effect! Meanwhile, Louise jogs past us, barefoot in the shallow breakers, up the point and back again. Roy has gone way ahead on his own, as Ospreys are circling beyond the point, but he turns and returns towards us after encountering a group of bulls on the beach, which are fighting over the rights to a cow. One bull is pouring blood from an ugly would, so Roy has decided not to try and pass them in case they decided to vent their ire on a man in a red-checked shirt! We all make our way back, and on the way meet two British women and their dogs resting on a log. The elder woman has lived in various parts of Africa for forty eight years, and has just returned to The Gambia after a brief (and cold!) visit to the UK for Christmas. She now runs a duck farm, while the other woman (her daughter) is setting up another business breeding bees and producing honey. We explain why we are here and then leave them to their morning rest. I think back to the early pioneers such as Elspeth Huxley and her family, who over a hundred years ago set out to establish coffee plantations in East Africa. She described her experiences in ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’. Hopefully the paternalistic and colonial attitudes prevalent in those times are now replaced with more enlightened approaches to the local people and wildlife.

11.15am : Under the leaf-bedecked roof of a shack on the beach, and sheltered from the burning sun, I am sitting on a wooden bed with a cold drink and scanning out at sea. A few others from our group are here too, resting, reading or sun-bathing. A few decide to go into the sea for a swim. A pack of Hooded Vultures and a few Yellow-billed Kites circle over them, but decide not to investigate. At 11.24 I hear a call behind me and turn to see a red and black bird, with a brilliant yellow head, on the fence just a few yards from me! A Yellow-crowned Gonolek in all its glory. It flicks and turns, revealing every aspect of its vivid plumage. I decide not to wake the sleepers, or disturb the readers. This was my private moment.

During lunch Tim and the Bills return from their computer-buying mission. Amazing progress has been made, and, if all goes to plan, the computers will be delivered to Kartong and Tanji schools in time for our visits there in the next few days. This is indeed excellent news, and yet another developing facet of the Project.

At last it is time to set out for Tanji marshes, and begin the search for 5F. When we come to a halt after a bumpy ride down a rutted track, John and Tim creep carefully along the edges of the marsh, so as not to disturb any Ospreys sitting out on the muddy surface, and they gesture to us when it is safe to move forwards. There are indeed Ospreys here, some sitting on stumps, a couple with fish, and new ones flying in and out all the time. There are thousands of other birds too – Pelicans, Terns, Gulls and Waders everywhere. Each Osprey is studied in every detail. The heat haze makes life difficult when trying to view the more distant ones, but if 5F had been there, we would have seen her. There is one ‘false alarm’, when an Osprey with the correct ring formation is spotted not too far away – colour ring right leg, silver ring left leg – but after a great deal of viewing from various angles, she is identified as F93, a German-ringed Osprey which the team has seen before here on previous visits. It just goes to show how careful we have to be – we have to be 100% certain. We wait. As the sun starts to sink, more Ospreys come in from the sea (a few kilometres away) with fish, or just come in to roost. There are no more with rings. For the team, it has been a frustrating afternoon, but for me it has been riveting – I’ve concentrated so hard for four and a half hours non-stop, just like a regular shift at Site B back home! Eventually we walk back across the mud to our bus, and when almost there, Chris calls out ‘White Helmetshrikes’ and about six of these showy, active birds flit past, black and white plumage conspicuous in the setting sun, and crests erect as they land momentarily against the sky in the tree-tops. African birds have this uncanny knack of appearing unexpectedly. Some consolation for not seeing our own Rutland Osprey this evening.

Searching for a Rutland Osprey at Tanji

Searching for a Rutland Osprey at Tanji

Dinner tonight is a little subdued, but hey! a lot of good things have happened today! The computer purchases have gone well – the two Bills celebrate with a bottle of Pearly Bay wine (African of course!), and Linda has enjoyed her half-day with Awa. I sit back and enjoy the talk around the table. Roy has tales from around the globe from Fair Isle to Mongolia. He is talking about Scottish Osprey rings he has been sent which have been recovered from the stomachs of crocodiles in Africa, and he has noticed that Ospreys fishing in inland waters here do not linger in the water when they have latched on to a fish (as they do back home), but they’re straight in and out. They must know that danger lurks beneath the surface. Another little nugget in the note-book.

By 9.45pm I’m back in the room , writing up notes, compiling bird records, and reflecting on another incredible day. We’ll be at Tanji again tomorrow. If she’s in the area, we’ll find her.

Saturday 18th January :

‘In a change to the advertised programme….’ as they say, we are heading not for Bijoli Island, but once again to Tanji Marsh to resume the search for 5F. The wind is far too strong for the small boats to attempt to take us over to the island, so the trip is re-scheduled for Monday. Let’s hope conditions are more favourable then.
Meanwhile back at Tanji Marsh this morning, the light and the temperature are very different compared with yesterday afternoon. There are more birds here too. Several of the Ospreys already have fish. They sit on stumps or on the exposed sand, making it quite straightforward to see if they are ringed or not. Through a gap in the mangroves we spot an adult Lanner Falcon settled on the ground, his rufous crown adding a splash of colour to otherwise peregrine-like plumage. Pied Crows and Yellow-billed Kites object to his presence, and dive-bomb repeatedly, but he sits out their attacks until he feels like leaving of his own accord. Then a party of Little Bee-eaters attract our attention. When perched on the edge of the mangroves they are virtually invisible to the naked eye, as their green, yellow and chestnut plumage merges with the colours of the leaves. But as soon as they rise into the air they are just brilliant, twisting and turning after bees which they capture in their bills and then descend again to a twig or low branch, where the insects are subdued by a few violent blows on a stem before being eaten. These birds represent a considerable challenge to the photographers in the party, who try again and again to ‘freeze’ one of these sprightly green jewels into a decent image.

Our main focus is the Ospreys. Four or five are in a line on the sand, a regulation ten to fifteen metres between each. After meticulous study, it is evident that the elusive Rutland bird is still not present, despite our hopes. However, on the plus side, one Scottish-ringed and two German-ringed birds are added to the trip tally. An interesting diversion occurs when a troop of Green Vervet Monkeys cavort across the sand, sending all the Ospreys and other birds into the air. Now that’s something you won’t see in Manton Bay! The Ospreys soon settle again, in a different order, and they are all checked again.

We return to our bus to find it surrounded by small boys in Premier League football shirts. We have nothing for them except our empty water bottles, which they seem to like as they can take water to school in them. They wave as we trundle away. Forty five minutes later we are within one hundred metres of Sandele and lunch, when the bus grinds to a halt! Not so much a flat front tyre as a completely wrecked front tyre which is almost off the wheel rim! No problem, no problem, we are ready for such small inconveniences, and the wheel will be replaced within minutes. We climb down and walk the last piece of the track, but not before John has drawn a little vignette of a perched Osprey in the dust on the windscreen. It is still there days later.

The Osprey bus!

The Osprey bus!

At 4.00pm we are at Kartong Beach again, for a really productive two hour walk along towards a distant village. The temperature is perfect for a walk, a cooling breeze coming off the sea. We soon become strung out over quite a distance, but gather up again whenever a wave or a gesture suggests something interesting is at hand. The flocks of birds on the water line contain fascinating mixtures of birds both familiar and strange, every day and exotic, well-known and obscure. The gulls include the elegant and pink-flushed Slender-billed Gulls, their sloping foreheads and long red bills making them quite striking after a little practice. And the wader flocks contain some rarities for us too – including the very attractive White-fronted Plover, a real African speciality, and distinguished now for us from the nearby Kentish Plovers by John’s explanation of its individual features. I study these little plovers for a long time, in case I should ever have the chance to see them again.

And then, another of those amazing special moments. A knot of people further along the beach is intently studying something further back on the sand. Then there are waves and gestures beckoning us to come closer. As we approach, I have an inkling what it is that has been found as I spot a lone, medium sized brown wading bird with a decurved bill…….surely not the lost North American wanderer we were told about a couple of days ago? It is, it is…..before our very eyes, only the second observed on the African continent…..a Hudsonian Whimbrel Numenius hudsonicus no less! I study it down the telescope. Like us, he is a stranger on these shores, and, like us too, almost three thousand miles from his homeland. The difference is that we have a reasonable chance of getting back to our accustomed habitat, but he has very little, poor soul. He has no congeners nearby with which we may compare him, but he certainly looks darker and (to anthropomorphise for a moment) rather sad and melancholy. A short flight confirms the identification – no white at all on the body, just a brown uniform back. Will he realise there are none here like him? I suppose life for a Whimbrel is pretty much the same wherever he is, as long as there is sand to probe and food to find. We leave him to his exile. Where he will end up, when the return migratory urge kicks in, is anyone’s guess. North Norfolk coast perhaps?

Back at Sandele, a few of sit around the table and have a cooling beer, reflecting on the day. The birds in the trees are especially noisy and excited, and John leaves us to investigate the reasons for their disquiet. He is soon back. He thinks there is an owl of some sort roosting there, and the other birds are objecting to its presence. We follow him back along the path, and stare with binoculars up intro the tree-tops. After a good while, a ghostly white face comes into focus, distinct ear tufts, blinking eyes opening and closing slowly. A Northern White-faced Scops Owl has been disturbed, and is now waking up as the daylight fades. It is considerably larger than a true Scops, and is certainly an impressive sight this afternoon. Its yellow eyes are opening ever wider as we leave it and resume our places at the table.

At dinner the chat is once more of all the experiences we have had so far, but however exciting they have been, our talk always returns to the Ospreys, and how brilliant it has been to see so many of them here. My own personal list of sightings must now run into sixty or seventy at least, and although we have not managed to see the ‘special one’ , how grand it has been to see these birds at rest or going about their fishing down here on their winter break….enjoying, just like we are, the sun, sand and sea in this brilliant country.

A good thought to take to bed……………..

Tim describing the migration route between Europe and Africa used by many different species, including Ospreys.

Ken’s Africa Diary – Day 3

Day 3 : Thursday 16th January :

7.10am : Someone is knocking on my door and calling me.  I’ve slept through the alarm and we’re due to leave in twenty minutes.  I’m thrashing about trying to find the join in the mosquito netting and call out to Tim that I’m fine, just running a little late this morning! I arrive at breakfast just in time to grab some bread and an egg and gulp down some coffee, and then we’re on the bus heading for a trip to Marakissa, where we are to have a walk through the forest and cultivated gardens. I step off the bus just as a very dark bird of prey alights in a nearby tree, and I soon have it in my binoculars.  JW has already spotted it and the message is relayed along a watching line :  Gabar Goshawk, melanistic form. I take a long look, fixing identification features in my mind, but there is no time to linger as we are off, following narrow paths through fairly dense woodland. JJ and JW are at the front, Paul in the middle, Tim and Chris at the back. With that sort of guidance and expertise, we do not miss much, and one species after another is identified and viewed. I especially admire the Rollers (two species), Sunbirds and Flycatchers, while overhead there are Turacos and Plantain-eaters regularly crossing from one grove to another. At one point I set up the ‘scope to watch a Grey Kestrel resting in a tree. We have to step aside off the track on occasions, to allow small groups of gaudily dressed women to pass us on their way to work in the gardens. They carry enormous burdens on their heads – cooking implements, pots of vegetables, rolls of materials – but still retain an elegant posture and a dignified gait. The older women are reserved with us, but the younger ones call out greetings and respond to our replies with the widest of smiles and infectious laughter.

Eventually we reach a pond and cross over to the other side via a narrow bridge made of planks on a muddy bank. Here, a Grey Woodpecker and a Fork-tailed Drongo compete with Hornbills and Yellow Wagtails for our attention, while a huge Turtle (or was it a Terrapin?) heaves itself out of the water onto a muddy patch, its long neck and beady eye giving it the appearance of a small version of something from ‘Jurassic Park.’ A man, perhaps a watchman for the nearby building work, comes out and addresses those closest to him, but I have to admit that I do not understand a single word : perhaps a good thing. While he is droning on, I note down all the species I can remember from our walk so far – Mannikins, Crombecs, Weaver Birds, Shrikes – roll-call tonight is going to be very exciting again!

We walk back the same way, and very soon a frisson of excitement passes down the line : something unusual has been found. Well, they are ALL unusual to me, but this is special – JJ has not seen one for five years, and it’s a new bird for all the other staff members. I set up the ‘scope and follow directions into a tree just a few metres off the track. At first I can see nothing, but with patience I see what it is that is causing so much interest : an attractive grey and white bird, about blackbird size or a little larger, moving about on the branches of the tree, sometimes partially obscured, but often very clear. Wait a minute….there’s another one! A pair of White-breasted Cuckooshrikes! Shutters are whirring as the photographers aim for the perfect shot. I am content to observe and savour my brief time with this African wanderer. As most people move on, I linger with Chris and John, and the birds provide us with excellent views. Finally both birds fly from the tree, the slightly paler female following her mate. Fifteen superb minutes watching two ‘once in a lifetime’ birds : stored in the memory bank for ever.

Lunch today is at the Marakissa Rivercamp, a lodge just off the road, set in shady glades, with channels of water and dense mangroves all around. As we arrive, Yellow-billed and Black Kites are swooping down and taking tossed-out scraps from the water, and the amazing Purple Glossy Starlings bustle around in small groups. I go to a pavilion in the woods, from where it is possible simply to sit and wait for the birds to come down to the water or lumps of melon which have been put out for them. Magpie-like Piapiacs, more Purple Glossy Starlings, together with the spectacular Long-tailed Glossy Starlings, vie with one another for my attention, but it is the aptly named Beautiful Sunbird which is the star here. The male glistens in his shining green plumage, with red and yellow patches on his chest, and long tail streamers almost doubling his overall length. The female is a neat little bird, in understated olive and primrose tones. Wherever she goes, the male will not be far behind. ‘He’s keeping an eye on her,’ says John.

After lunch, a few of us make a short trip to a nearby school. JJ has been here before and has taken some of the students out on a trip to see the Ospreys and other birds. He has talked to them about the value of their wildlife, and begun to teach them about looking after it. Today we meet the Principal in his office. He tells us he has 260 children, who attend in two shifts – one from 8.30 – 1.00. and the other 1.30 – 6.00. There are 16 teachers, 14 men and just 2 women.

Tim describing the migration route between Europe and Africa used by many different species, including Ospreys.

Tim describing the migration route between Europe and Africa used by many different species, including Ospreys.

Then we visit a classroom, where Class 9 (aged 13/14) are waiting for us. One girl comes to sit next to me and introduces herself. Tim and JJ use a large map to show them where the Ospreys come from, and Tim says what a privilege it is to come to such a beautiful country where the wildlife is so diverse and wonderful. How lucky they all are to live in such a place! JJ reminds them how he read to them from the little book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ and holds a copy up. I have a couple of copies with me, and start to look at them with the girl sitting next to me. She can read it well, with understanding and interest. Linda is doing the same with another girl next to her, and I take a quick shot of them reading together.

We have to go. I leave ‘Ozzie’ with my new friend, and contact details too.  I wonder if I shall ever hear from her?

Linda Jones reading Ozzie's Migration to one of the students.

Linda Jones explaining Ozzie’s Migration to one of the students.

We pick up the rest of our party from the Rivercamp and head off to our last stop of the day : the Dasilammeh Wetlands. The track becomes more and more difficult, but all the way along children stop to wave and call out. I just about manage to see a large raptor in the top of a tree as JJ shouts out from the front : ‘Lizard Buzzard, Lizard Buzzard.’ At last the bus lurches to a halt on a rut-filled uneven track, with water on both sides as far as the eye can see, and belts of trees, bushes and muddy banks all around us. A birdwatcher’s paradise! We get out and start to take it all in.  Immediately a sturdy, dark lump in a distant tree is transformed into a Western Banded Snake Eagle with the help of a powerful lens. Senegal Thick-knees and African Wattled Lapwings are on the muddy banks, while a pair of resplendent Giant Kingfishers sit on a bough. Two Long-crested Eagles are spotted at about the same time, on different sides of the road. The one I am watching keeps turning its head from side to side, and as it does so the breeze catches its long, loose crest, which blows in the wind before flopping down again. Three sleeping pale waders on a bank attract our attention. All are on one leg, heads tucked under wings, all facing the same direction. One, the largest one, is a Greenshank. But the other two……?  Marsh Sandpipers!! Very rare in Western Europe now, these two are in winter quarters and will possibly be heading back to the steppe or taiga regions later in the spring to breed. Just as we are discussing the mysteries of migration, they both raise their heads to reveal the needle-thin bill and neat cap over the eye. Another lesson in bird recognition and habits.

‘There ought to be Ospreys here’, says someone. No sooner said than one is spotted heading over towards us, eyes down, in fishing mode. We watch it closely all the way. Its  departure is our cue to leave too, but Alhagie has to perform a daring driving manoeuvre first in order to get the bus across some of the deepest and muddiest water-filled ruts that we have encountered so far. We are all prepared to go to his rescue if he should become stuck, but he lurches his bus strongly forward, and despite some alarming listing to one side at one point, the vehicle emerges dripping but triumphant on the other side! Alhajie climbs on the roof and gives us a victory salute and shout as we hurry to catch him up and climb aboard!  Maybe he would like to enter the next Paris – Dakar Rally.

Back at Sandele, 6.30pm. Still an hour of daylight, so I wander down to the beach, and look out to sea. Soon it will be sunset. There is a cool breeze now. Tim, John and a few others are here too, but not much is being said. The sea, the setting sun, the memories of the day……that’s all we need. There is nothing between us and the Caribbean……..

But there are Ospreys! At 6.52, one appears from the South, flies through the setting sun, and continues North. At 7.05, one comes in from the North-west, carrying a large fish to an inland perch. And at 7.22, the last one of the day is flying North along the shore in the gathering dusk. A fitting end to another brilliant and varied day. Just time for a quick shower and change before dinner at 8.00, followed by roll-call and bed. Tonight I have TWO alarm clocks just in case I miss the first one again.

The bed, with its shroud pulled tight, is very welcoming. I try to read for a while……….but I…. don’t seem to be able to conce……..

Capturing the Sandele sunset

Capturing the Sandele sunset

Looking north from the beach at Sandele.

Ken’s Africa Diary – Days 1 and 2

One of the project volunteers who joined us for a week in The Gambia was our regular website contributor Ken Davies. Over the course of this week, we’ll be publishing his diary from the trip, starting today with days 1 and 2…

African Diary, January 14th – 21st, 2014.

Day 1 : Tuesday January 14th :

5.30am at BirminghamAirport. The surroundings may be cold, damp and dark, but the atmosphere is sunny, bright and tingling as our happy band of six assembles and prepares to depart for The Gambia, where we will be joining a larger group who have already been there for a week experiencing the bird life of the interior right up to Georgetown. Our week is more coastal in nature, with exciting boat trips  on river estuary and sea to view wintering Ospreys, as well as visits to reserves and beaches and trips to local schools to meet teachers and pupils and further cement relationships already made through the Flyways Project. Two group members will also be arranging the purchase of computer equipment for Gambian schools through links with their Rotary Club.

The journey is a long six hour one, but it passes quite quickly as we chat. I study ‘The Birds of Senegal and The Gambia’ book. One of the stewards is a bird man himself, and takes a real interest in our plans. He says we are in for a real treat in the days ahead. At last we arrive. As I emerge from the aircraft the heat hits me as if I am entering a furnace. I am totally overdressed, in thick winter trousers and jumpers. No matter. That will soon change. Even as I descend the stairway from the ‘plane, I see large black and white birds hopping around on the tarmac (Pied Crows), and huge birds of prey circling the control tower. Are they vultures? They are! Hooded Vultures in fact, and I’m not even officially in the country yet!

Passport procedures over, there are some touching reunions in the Arrivals Lounge. Tim is there to meet us, and so is our guide JJ and our driver Alhagie. Cue big hugs all round! It reminds me of the story of Stanley meeting Livingstone in Africa after the latter had been missing for six years. Well, in our case it’s only been a week : ‘Mr Mackrill I presume?’ The 45 minute drive south to our coastal retreat near Kartong is filled with chatter and stories of events from the first week, and fleeting images of strange birds sitting on wires, poles and trees. I’ll have to come to terms with them later. We pull in to the driveway of the Sandele Eco Retreat, and smiling faces surround the bus and our friends give us the warmest of welcomes. They have been there since yesterday and are already settled. For some this is their third or fourth visit, but for me and a few others it is a brand new experience. The lush surroundings, the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach no more than a hundred yards away, the rich fluty bird songs coming from the depth of the woods (Could they be Bulbuls? Or Babblers? My homework is paying off already!)…….Everything combines at this moment of arrival to create a deeply satisfying sensation of entering into a new world, a world I have seen and known in books and on screens, but never experienced first-hand…until now.

Our bags are off-loaded by smiling and willing staff, and we are taken to our lodges, at some distance from the main building. I am the first to be settled in as Tim says ‘You have this one Ken’, and my bag is left on the stone floor of a huge room , with an enormous wooden bed resembling a four-poster, shrouded in  voluminous folds of mosquito netting, a writing desk (that will be handy!) and outside a small terrace looking out over a short piece of dense undergrowth and emergent palm trees over to the Atlantic Ocean, the breakers of which are cascading onto the shore. For several seconds, after the others have moved on to find their own rooms, I stand speechless in this cavern which will be my home for the next week. On such a curtained bed as this, I muse, might the Montagus and Capulets have lain the deceased Romeo and Juliet…..or maybe it was in a room like this where the Sleeping Beauty lay for a hundred years…. Hey, time I was heading down to the beach to see some Ospreys!

5.00pm : Twelve hours ago I was at BirminghamAirport in the rain. Now I am walking alone along a beautiful sandy beach three thousand miles away on the coast of West Africa looking for Ospreys. Within ten minutes I’ve seen two, flying in fairly leisurely fashion along the sea to the point in the distance, where they begin to circle and look for fish. My first-ever January Ospreys! I look north and south, and there is no-one in sight. There are birds everywhere – familiar Whimbrel, Sanderling, Godwits and Grey Plovers probing the sand and running along just as they do in Norfolk, whilst overhead exotic Caspian and Royal Terns and Grey-headed Gulls ply a steady path up and down. There are Swallows too, but hang on…they don’t look quite right….I must check those in the book later. I turn my attention to the rich undergrowth and bushes on the inland side of the beach, and there are many birds there too…. Some are easy to identify because they are large, brash and noisy, but others are small, giving only fleeting views and flashes of brilliant colour. In the first group (large and noisy) are Western Grey Plantain Eaters  and Western Red-billed Hornbills (love the names), while in the second are Red-billed Firefinch and the wren-like Grey-backed Cameroptera…..pretty good for my first hour’s birding in Africa!!

Looking north from the beach at Sandele.

Looking north from the beach at Sandele.

A few of us meet up with JW at 6.15 and we go out again. He points out so many birds, all of which are new to me…but I manage to get most of them in the binoculars and try to retain these images for future use. Senegal Coucal, Grey Kestrel, the weird looking Hammerkop, the black and white morphs of the Western Reef Heron, the spindly African Palm Swift…. to name just a few of the species encountered this evening. Whenever an Osprey appears (and that’s every few minutes), everyone stops whatever they are doing to look at it. It’s why we are here. Male or female? Carrying a fish? Evidence of rings on either leg? One flies strongly over us, a long silvery needle-fish hanging down from its talons, and glinting in the setting sun. It strikes inland, no doubt to a favourite perch a mile or so away, where it will enjoy its meal and spend the night before heading out again. Then, finally, as dusk rapidly descends around us, small groups of fast-flying Four-banded Sand Grouse hurtle past, on their way on whirring wings to find fresh water, which they bring back in their breast feathers to their nests to cool the eggs. It’s almost dark now as we stand in silence on sandy tracks on the way back to the Retreat and wait quietly for the last bird of the day. Will they come? Or won’t they? Wait…..shh….don’t move….get your torches ready….and then suddenly there it is…..a ghostly Long-tailed Nightjar resting for a moment on the sand in the beam of light. Incredible, beautiful, a fitting conclusion to my first day in Africa, as the moonlight casts eerie shadows, and Venus and Jupiter (with its moons) hold us in thrall.

Dinner at 8.00 is taken outside the main building under an awning. The chatter is excited, as the ‘old hands’ tell the ‘newbies’ of all the pleasures to come. JW leads the roll-call of bird species, and I realise I have added 24 to my life list…..and I only started at 5.00pm! And I was right about the swallows – the ones I saw earlier were Red-chested Swallows.

By 9.35 I am back in my room (or should I say ‘tomb’) and lying in my net-bedecked bed, like some imperial grandee lying in state…..except that I am very much alive and listening to the stridulations of crickets, the calls of tree frogs, and the crashing of the sea outside.  As I extinguish my torch, the darkness is total and all-enveloping. The African night has indeed embraced us all. But tomorrow will come.

Day 2 : Wednesday January 15th :

It’s still dark as we assemble for a 7.00am breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, muesli, honey and crusty bread, and by 8.00 we are on the road for the short journey south to Kartong Bird Reserve. At one point Alhajie seems to be having difficulty in getting the bus out of first gear, and we crawl along so slowly that a boy cycling to school in Kartong actually overtakes us! I take his picture as he passes us.

Our bus was briefly overtaken by a schoolboy on his bike!

Our bus was briefly overtaken by a schoolboy on his bike!

Fortunately the problem is soon fixed by a few carefully aimed blows under the bonnet and we soon arrive at the well-known reserve. Immediately we are engulfed by a succession of new birds, ranging from the tiny jewel-like Malachite Kingfisher to the lily-walking African Jacana, from the noisy flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks (living up to their name!) to  the iridescent but rather crudely named Purple Swamphen…..how can something as gaudy as that be called a ‘swamphen’? As a raptor addict I am continually on the look out for birds of prey, and am kept busy this morning as first African Harrier Hawk, then a Black-shouldered Kite (with the back half of a rat held firmly in its claw) and thirdly an adult African Hobby present themselves to me in a thrilling fifteen minute sequence. I notice that some of the Spur-winged Plovers are ringed, as part of a British-led monitoring project to study their movements. In one pool lies a fair-sized Crocodile, mouth agape, and a little further on a Monitor Lizard is spotted as it climbs up a bank. JJ points out a series of squiggles in the sand where a snake crossed the sandy track. Relax for a moment and miss something…….that’s the watchword this morning.

After two and a half hours a cooling drink back at the Reserve HQ is very welcome, and we meet Colin Cross, the warden. Vultures are feeding on the carcass of a dog  a few metres away, as we look out from the shelter over a pool, where Pied and Malachite Kingfishers watch and wait for unwary fish. Then, another highlight…….two majestic Black-crowned Cranes, looking huge in the blue sky, fly slowly across the scene, on slow, elegant wing-beats. We envy another group of birdwatchers who are much closer than us to this splendid sight. Colin tells us there has been a sighting on the beach of a wandering North American vagrant called a Hudsonian Whimbrel, only the second time one has been found in Africa. It doesn’t excite me too much – I didn’t come to Africa to see a lost American bird…….but watch this space to see what happened on Day 5!

Then we move down to Kartong beach, and park the bus near the site of a new mosque which is being built here. This is a place of many tales in the local folklore, and many lurid stories are told of happenings here…… Better to concentrate on the birds I think! Almost immediately a cry goes up ‘Carmine! Carmine!’ and before our eyes a small group of  Northern Carmine Bee-eaters are twisting and turning in the air over the bushes just off the beach. They truly are a wonderful sight….their reddish plumage differentiating them from their near relatives the Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, which are also here. Overhead, Yellow-billed Kites, Hooded Vultures, and the occasional Palm Nut Vulture. Tim points out another interesting raptor – Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, which is hovering over the rough ground and searching for prey. And all the while, Ospreys are flying above us, out to sea or returning inland.  Every single one is carefully checked by all of us. 5F might not be very far away…..

After a long and relaxing fish lunch at a riverside lodge, we are ready for our three hour cruise on the River Allahein, which separates The Gambia from neighbouring Senegal. Firstly we go down towards the estuary, pausing to check out thousands of water birds resting on the banks. Ospreys are our main interest, as ever, but there is so much else to delight me here. The snake-necked African Darter, or Anhinga, for example, is a bird I’ve wanted to see for half a century or more, and the Senegal Thick-knee, so closely related to our Stone Curlew, is another African speciality now seen for the first time. It stares dolefully at me from the mud-bank as we drift past on our boat. This afternoon, though, I have one target in mind, and I’m told this is my best chance to see it. We’ve now turned upriver, and are deep in the mangroves, wending our way through channels when someone points to a massive bird sitting in the bare top of a tree in the distance. Pure white head and throat, underparts, wings and back in shades of brown, broad yellow and black bill, proud, upright stance…….it’s got to be the African Fish Eagle, sitting in the treetop in all its glory. Wow! What a sight, the highlight of the trip so far for me. It does not move as the boat drifts through, and I watch it until it is a mere dot.  ‘It is as typical and evocative of African wilderness as the roar of a lion’, as Leslie Brown once wrote of its loud, clear, ringing call. Well, there are no lions here, and my bird did not call….but I saw it, and that image will live in my mind forever.

Ken's view from the boat on the River Allahein. Now where's that African Fish Eagle?

Ken’s view from the boat on the River Allahein. Now where’s that African Fish Eagle?

We drift on, pausing for regular travellers to renew acquaintance with a German-ringed Osprey they have met before, and again to watch an African Harrier Hawk probing with its long legs into holes and crannies in trees to find its prey, and yet again as a Marsh Mongoose runs along the bank. Two more Black-crowned Cranes, or maybe the same ones, ply their way slowly overhead, one slightly behind the other by a neck, in close formation.

Too soon it is over, and we are rattling back over the rough track towards Sandele, and dinner. Paul is in charge of roll-call now. When he calls out ‘African Fish Eagle’ I am almost bursting with pride and satisfaction, but do my best to conceal it and casually give it a small tick in my book…..but inside, I am ablaze! One member of our group records birds on a device which uses word recognition. Unfortunately it makes mistakes, so Carmine Bee-eater has come out as Cornell Bee-catcher. I think I’ll stick to notebook and pen!

I’m writing the outline of this in my bed, at 10.00pm. A brilliant, long, twelve hour day in the field, with many highlights, but one, above all, which I will never forget. It is even clearer today, too, just how lucky we are to be part of such a supportive and helpful group, with skilled and patient leaders always ready to help first-timers like me, and point out birds which they have seen themselves hundreds of times. I drift off, and dream of dawn on an African river, where a solitary Fish Eagle still holds vigil atop a baobab tree………..

Ken's inspiration...

Ken’s inspiration…

In the next episode tomorrow : Marakissa, Turacos and Cuckooshrikes; and a visit to a school.

Osprey Flyways Project in The Gambia

Osprey Flyways Project in The Gambia

When you visit Gambia and Senegal – as myself and the Rutland Osprey team have done for the past four years – it is obvious that this part of the West African coast is vitally important for many species of migrant birds from Europe. We know all about the Ospreys of course, but walk along any beach in Gambia and you will see wintering Whimbrel. Out to sea flocks of Little Terns will be foraging in the rich waters and in the nearby coastal scrub Nightingales will be uttering brief snatches of their famous song. As recent research on our declining summer visitors has shown, it is essential that conservation effort is not only focused on areas where these species breed, but also on their migration flyways and wintering grounds. It is this theory that underpins the Osprey Flyways Project.

In my opinion education is fundamental to the success of any conservation initiative and so when we first visited the Gambia and Senegal in 2011 we set up a pilot education project in Gambian schools. It is exciting to report that three years later, the project is really gaining momentum.

Our latest visit to the Gambia gave us the opportunity to visit three of the schools we are currently working with as part of the Osprey Flyways Project. Students from Dasalameh Upper Basic, Tanji Lower Basic School and St Martins Basic Cycle School in Kartong have all recently been on fieldtrips with project coordinator Junkung Jadama and it was great to hear how much they have enjoyed the opportunity to get out and see their local wildlife. As Mr Gibba, the Deputy Headteacher of Tanji school pointed out, the project has opened the eyes of the staff as well as the students to the rich diversity of wildlife that their country supports.

Junkung Jadama reading Ozzie's Migration to pupils at Tanji Lower Basic School. The book's author, Ken Davies, is looking on!

Junkung Jadama reading Ozzie’s Migration to pupils at Tanji Lower Basic School. The book’s author, Ken Davies, is looking on!

A key element to the success of the project is that the work is being led by a Gambian. Junkung has a good career as a professional bird guide and he stresses to the students at every opportunity, that conserving wildlife makes real economic sense. Not only does tourism contribute significantly to Gambia’s GDP, but there is the potential for the students to follow the example of Junkung and make a career out of their growing interest in the natural world.

It is also significant that many of the teachers we have spoken to were simply not aware of the migratory journeys that species like Ospreys make each year. I get the feeling that when local people release how far species like Ospreys have flown for the winter, they feel a sense of ownership. This may sound a little naïve on my part, but it is the over-riding feeling I get when talking to West Africans about bird migration.

To help the students (and teachers) to learn more about the migratory flights of Ospreys and other migrant species, we are installing computers and an internet connection in all of the schools we are working with. This will allow them to follow the progress of satellite-tagged Ospreys and to make links with other schools on the migratory flyway. Last week we installed computers at Tanji and Kartong schools. To put the significance of this into context, despite the fact that the two schools have a combined total of 2500 students, they had only one working computer (and no internet connection) between them for students to use. We have installed a single machine in each for the time being but will be expanding that in the coming months.

Bill Hill from Melton Mowbray Rotary Club presenting the Headteacher of St Martin's Basic Cycle School in Kartong with a computer

Bill Hill from Melton Mowbray Rotary Club presenting the Headteacher of St Martin’s Basic Cycle School in Kartong with a computer

We are extremely grateful to Melton Rotary Club for their assistance with the project. Two of their members, Bill Hill and Bill Glancy, are also Osprey project volunteers and they joined us for the second week in The Gambia. Melton Rotary have generously donated £2000 to the project that will enable us to purchase machines for all the schools currently involved in the project. Bill Glancy is an IT expert and his technical knowledge was indispensable during the trip. The computers themselves were provided by Lasting Solutions Limited, an ICT business solution provider, based in Serrekunda. Their Head of Business Development Alhagie Mbow installed the computers and will also provide after-sales support for the schools. Alhagie runs ICT training courses at the Lasting Soultions HQ and we plan to send at least one teacher from each school onto these courses.

Providing internet access for the schools is clearly an essential component of the project and two companies QCell and Unique Solutions are currently undertaking the relevant site surveys in order to do this. Once we have their quotes we will precede with the installation at Tanji and Kartong. The other schools will then follow.

Providing computers and internet will allow the Gambian students to participate in World Osprey Week, our exciting new initiative that is taking place from 24th-28th March. To find out more, click here.

Aside from fieldtrips and computers, we are also planning to develop a series of teaching resources based around Ospreys that meet the requirements of the Gambian teaching curriculum. This opens up the possibility of expanding the project across many more schools, and in time, the whole of The Gambia.  This is clearly a major challenge but a challenge that we believe can make a real difference.

Finally a huge thank you to those of you who have supported our various fund-raising challenges for the project. As I hope this blog demonstrates, your money is making a real difference in helping to educate young people in The Gambia about the value of protecting their wonderful wildlife.

We would also like to thank Pearson books who have generously donated education books for the schools we are working with. We delivered books to Dasalameh and Tanji schools and the others will be distributed to the other schools in the coming weeks by Junkung Jadama.

The River Allahein is a great place to see wintering Ospreys

The search for a Rutland Osprey in Africa

After a week inland with only a handful of Ospreys, we knew that our second week would be different. We would be spending a week on the Gambian coast, based at the Sandele Eco-Retreat near Kartong.

After an excellent morning at Kartong Bird Observatory on Wednesday – with a pair of Black-crowned Cranes the highlight – we headed to the River Allahein for an afternoon boat trip. The river here forms the southern border between Gambia and Senegal and is an excellent place to see Ospreys. And there is one Osprey that stands out in particular – a bird ringed by Rolf Wahl at a nest in Orleans Forest in central France in 2004. After identifying it close to the mouth of the Allahein in January 2011, we saw it on every subsequent visit. Sadly though, we knew that wasn’t going to be the case this time around.  I was saddened to learn from Rolf in September, that the bird had disappeared mid-way through the breeding season, almost certainly illegally killed at a fishing lake close to its nest. Sadly, as in the UK, raptor persecution is still a real problem in France.

The River Allahein is a great place to see wintering Ospreys

The River Allahein is a great place to see wintering Ospreys

Although the French Osprey was notable for its absence, we did see another familiar Osprey. 0IR is a German-ringed bird that we first saw at the Allahein in January 2011. We saw it again last year and, as we slowly meandered our way inland this time, the bird was perched on a riverside mangrove just as it had been twelve months previously. We know that adult Ospreys remain faithful to the same wintering site each year, but it is always great to see a bird from previous trips.

As it turned out, 0IR was the only ringed Osprey that we saw from the boat. However, a mighty African Fish Eagle perched beside the river and flocks of brilliantly-coloured Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters that zipped back and forth over the boat made up for it. Earlier in the day we had also enjoyed close views of a stunning Carmine Bee-eater – a rare bird at the coast.

Thursday wasn’t really supposed to be an Osprey day, and as we expected, we only saw a single bird. However, we actually visited the spot where a Rutland Osprey had been seen just a few weeks previously. Just before the trip Roy Dennis – who had flown out to join us this week – had received an e-mail from Dick Forsman, the world-renowned raptor expert. Dick had photographed a blue-ringed juvenile Osprey close to the village of Marakissa in the headwaters of the River Allahein on 4th December and Roy was able to identify it as blue/white 2K – a male bird which fledged from the Site N last summer. Of course it was highly unlikely that we would see the bird itself – as a juvenile it will be exploring over a vast area and may well now be further south in Guinea or perhaps even the Ivory Coast – but it was great to know that the young male had survived its first migration.

Juvenile male, 2K(13), photographed by Dick Forsman at Marikissa on December 4th

Juvenile male, 2K(13), photographed by Dick Forsman at Marikissa on December 4th

Close-up of 2K's colour ring

Close-up of 2K’s colour ring

As expected, we didn’t see 2K, and instead bird – or should that be birds – of the day was not an Osprey but a pair of White-breasted Cuckoo Shrikes. This inconspicuous, but striking bird is uncommon in The Gambia and so we were delighted to get great views.

On Friday and Saturday thoughts turned to another Rutland Osprey. On 8th December, and then again a week later, project volunteer Chris Wood photographed 5F(12) at Tanji Marsh. Tanji is a site that we have visited many times on previous trips and so we were particularly excited at the prospect of seeing her there. On Friday evening, and then again on Saturday morning, we visited the marsh in the hope of catching up with a Rutland Osprey for the first time during our West African trips. Unlike 2K, there was every chance that 5F would still be at Tanji. By their second winter, most young Ospreys will have settled at a particular site and so every time a female Osprey came into view excitement rose. Over the course of the two days we identified several of the Ospreys we had seen on previous trips – two German and two Scottish birds – and also a new German juvenile. 5F, though, did not show up. What’s more we didn’t see her when we visited again at first light on Sunday morning. During the course of four hours at the marsh we saw at least fifteen different Ospreys, but not the one we wanted. Close views of another Carmine Bee-eater helped to avert the disappointment, but we began to wonder whether 5F had moved on.

A typical view of an Osprey at Tanji Marsh. This adult male is unringed.

A typical view of an Osprey at Tanji Marsh. This adult male is unringed.

On Monday we headed out to Bijoli Island. This idyllic sandy island lies a few kilometres off the coast at Tanji and is a superb place to watch Ospreys fishing. Many of the birds that we see at Tanji Marsh will also spend time on Bijoli Island and so there was a chance that 5F may have been there. By midday with the tide receding, 9 Ospreys were perched on the southern part of the island. Frustratingly though, that part of the island was cut off by the sea, making it impossible to check the birds for colour rings. We did, however, identify a German adult female (black/white 4OS) that appeared over our heads and then caught a fish nearby. A superb mixed flock of gulls, terns and waders provided a real spectacle too; and another example of how important this part of the West African coast is for a range of European migrant birds. A group of 100 or so Little Terns may have included birds from the UK. Other sea birds passing to the west of the island included a single Leach’s Petrel, an immature Pomarine Skua and numerous Arctic Skuas. In fact, the only bird missing was 5F!

Bijoli Island is situated a couple of kilometres off the Gambian coast at Tanji

Bijoli Island is situated a couple of kilometres off the Gambian coast at Tanji

After three hours on the island, we headed back to Tanji knowing that our last real chance of seeing 5F had gone. So where was she? Perhaps we had just been unlucky? However after a combined total of more than 15 hours, we would have expected to have seen her if she was still at Tanji. We identified five colour-ringed birds at the marsh and saw several of them on more than one occasion. So perhaps 5F has moved on? She may not have gone far, but without the aid of a satellite transmitter, looking for her is the proverbial needle in a hay stack. Chris Wood is returning to Gambia in February, so with a bit of luck she might be back at Tanji by then.

We may not have seen a Rutland Osprey but by the time we boarded the plane on Tuesday afternoon, we had identified eight colour ringed birds over the course of our week on the coast. Six (three Scottish and three German) were birds we had seen on previous trips, but it was good to identify two new German birds.

John Wright, Paul Stammers and Cat Barlow are now the only members of the team left in West Africa. They’re traveling north through Senegal with Junkung Jadama and I’ll keep you updated with their progress. With a bit of luck they will see our satellite-tagged Osprey, 30(05), next week.

In the meantime, watch out for another blog tomorrow, when I’ll bring you up to date with our work with Gambian schools. The project has taken a big step forward over the past fortnight, so there is much to report.