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By Kayleigh Brookes on January 28, 2016
Whilst my updates from Africa have reached an end, there is more to come about our adventures in the shape of Ken’s Diary! Education Officer and volunteer Ken Davies was one of the lucky ten who accompanied us to Africa this year. Below is part one of four detailing his experiences of our trip.
An African Journal, Part 1 : The Gambia and Senegal, January 2016.
Thursday January 14th :
7.15am : Dawn on the Gambia River, Tendaba Camp. I am alone on the wooden seats at the end of the creaking jetty, narrow fishing boats moored alongside. We leave in fifteen minutes. Having breakfasted on eggs, cheese and bread, I have brought my last coffee down here for one final lingering look. Light is just beginning to reveal the distant, mangrove-clad bank of this vast river, and already I can make out tiny white dots amid the greenery – herons, egrets, pelicans. In the mid-distance, playfully rolling and arcing in the river’s central flow, two or three dolphins ripple the water, while closer to me two Ospreys beat steadily up and down, heads downwards and seeking their first fish of the day. We knew we would not encounter too many Ospreys this far up-river, but these two have been about nearly every day. Relaxing for a moment, I sense a black and white shape very close, and a Pied Kingfisher has landed on the sharp prow of one of the boats, dagger-bill angled downwards – he too intent on his work. This final early morning riverscape will stay in my memory.
I walk back up the jetty and return my coffee cup, with thanks to the ever-smiling people who have provided for us so well. Back at my sleeping lodge (No.16), I find a young Gambian waiting to carry my luggage to the bus for me. She is called Kaddy. I met her earlier when we first arrived, and from our hesitant, halting conversations I learned that she is nineteen and training to join the Gambian Police Force. I hastily throw the last few things into the case, which she takes from me. It is apparently something the girls of the village do, as I see many others carrying cases for my fellow guests. At the bus, I rather awkwardly and with some embarrassment push a few Gambian notes into her hand, and she thanks me with a smile. I then remember I have a copy of our little book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ in my bag, so offer her that as well. Maybe she could read it to her little brothers and sisters, if she has any. Once on the bus, I look back to see other girls gathered round her, looking at the book together, and having their photographs taken. A good moment.
As the bus trundles up the dusty track and out of Tendaba, we are all strangely quiet. Perhaps, like me, everyone is beginning to realise that we are near the end of our adventure, and that this time tomorrow, after a long flight home, we will be back in England. I flick back through the pages of my dusty, sandy, at times barely legible hand-written journal, and as we turn on to the main Banjul road, I settle in my seat and re-live some of the thrills and spectacles of the last eleven days…….
Monday January 4th :
Our evening arrival at Tendaba Camp is accompanied by excited chatter and laughter amongst the young women who have gathered to help unload the suit-cases and rucksacks from the rack on the roof of the bus. I see mine come down. A very slight young girl lifts it, but immediately rejects it in favour of a lighter one, and one of her older companions takes it instead. I follow to my sleeping quarters (Hut No. 43). There is little time for unpacking, as dinner is served almost immediately, accompanied by a cooling bottle of beer from ‘The Gambia’s Very Own Brewery’, with its colourful label featuring the elusive Woodland Kingfisher. Afterwards I sleep lightly but pleasantly, enshrouded in mosquito-proof (hopefully) netting, accompanied by occasional scuttling, scraping and scratching sounds which are all part of the African night-time experience. At one point I shine my torch through the netting to reveal a green, grasshopper-like creature clinging to the wall, but in the morning it’s gone.
Tuesday January 5th :
By 8.00am we are crossing the wide Gambia River in a long wooden fishing boat, making for the creeks and lagoons on the opposite bank, where countless birds of all shapes and sizes live and breed in the mangroves. At first it is hard to know where to look as John, Tim, JJ and Chris call out the names of birds they can see, but I soon learn to look long and hard at the ones I can spot, so that I’ll know them myself next time. I love the Kingfishers with exotic names (Malachite and Blue-breasted), the Rollers (Broad-billed, Blue-bellied, Abyssinian) and the amazing Bee-eaters (Swallow-tailed, Blue-cheeked, White-throated). We move quietly through mud-lined creeks where African Darters, Senegal Thick-knees, mythical-looking Hamerkops and the occasional huge Goliath Heron regard us with mild curiosity. Suddenly we are in the middle of a Cormorant metropolis, where hundreds of pairs of these white-breasted birds (sub-species lucidus) have recently set up home. The pungent scent of guano, the sounds of Cormorant domestic life, the sights of gleaming white breasts, coal black backs and deep green mangroves, the ripple of cool water – a truly multi-sensory experience. Two rare species of Night Heron are shown to us in quick succession – White-backed and Black-crowned – and our boatman even skilfully manoeuvres the boat close in to the side to let us catch a glimpse of these secretive creatures at their nest. Another cry goes up : ‘Crocodile!’ And there it is on the bank, immobile, jaws agape, glassy eye all-seeing. We glide up silently. Still it does not move. Suddenly, it has had enough of us, and with one sweep of its great tail, and a snap of the jaws, it is in the water and gone. We see four more of various sizes during the morning. All the while, birds familiar and unfamiliar surround us. The commonest wader by far is the Whimbrel, singly and in groups, migrants from Northern Europe, probing and resting on the muddy banks on either side. House Martins in January provide a warming, homely sight. Hopefully they’ll be back in my village street in three or four months. No time for dreaming! A large brown mammal ahead of us puts me in mind of an Otter, but no – it’s a Marsh Mongoose, running along the bank and then swimming across the creek. And so we carry on, criss-crossing this maze of watery wilderness, until we see the wide river ahead of us again. One more thrill before we set out to cross to our camp. The final tree on the left, a massive bare baobab, holds on its top-most tip that majestic bird which for many is the most iconic symbol of Africa : the African Fish Eagle. Proud, erect, surveying his domain with unerring eye, he watches us pass beneath him. Everyone turns and keeps him in view as long as possible. I cherish the hope that he will throw his head back and utter that shrill and evocative cry so wonderfully described in many travellers’ tales, but he remains silent as we slide into the now choppy waters of the river and begin our homeward crossing. Half way across, the waves start to enter the boat and give us a mild soaking. Fortunately the person in front of me (Jackie) is sheltering me from most of it, so I still have my equipment dry as yet another ‘Look up!’ shout goes up, and there, perfectly outlined against the blue sky, a flock of 45 Woolly-necked Storks fly in perfect formation over us, while a smaller flock of African Spoonbills cross with them, flying in the opposite direction. As we lurch up and down, and waves continue to wash over us, that is certainly a ‘champagne moment.’ No champagne perhaps, but certainly worth another Banjul beer on our return to camp. As the water calms and we approach the jetty, I look back. The Eagle is still there in his baobab, a mere white and brown dot now, but seared forever in my avian memory.
After the briefest of rests (and that beer in honour of the Eagle), we are out again at 11.30am, this time following John on a late morning walk through the busy village and up the track, past woodland and scrub, acacias and baobab. We encounter crowds of small children, all dressed in kindergarten pink. They run amongst us, grabbing our legs, our tripods, anything they can reach. Their mothers and elder sisters regard us from a distance. There are no men around. Either working or resting, we are told. Gradually we leave the village behind, and become immersed in the colourful bird life all around us. John calls out name after name, and ‘scopes are set up to allow us to admire these stunning creatures one after the other. A technicoloured Bearded Barbet poses long enough for everyone to enjoy its splendour. Red-rumped and Red-chested Swallows flit around us, while the larger Mottled Spinetails (a sort of Swift) are a definite new and interesting species for me. A commotion in a tree behind some huts alerts John, and he has soon found a resting Dark Chanting Goshawk being mobbed by a smaller falcon, a dashing Shikra. The Shikra whirls around and around, attempting to dislodge the Goshawk, but its assaults are largely ignored, and both are still there as we retrace our steps and head back to Camp for lunch, noting as we go several more new species, including Glossy Starlings, Sunbirds and Weavers.
Lunch is taken in the shade of the bar, overlooking the river. We have rest time now, but will be going out again at 4.00, for a longer walk through woodland and grassland, taking in a drying-out lake, and ending at dusk back on the road, the well-known haunt of owls and nightjars. Meanwhile, time for a short siesta back in my hut……………
4.00pm already, and we leave the road on foot to follow a path through the woods and scrub. Our friend and guide JJ has brought one of his young protegees from the village, and she is soon looking down our telescopes and having close views of the birds that surround her every day. Our first quarry is an elusive bird sitting high up in the foliage of a tree – Bruce’s Green Pigeon – a startling green and yellow pigeon on the page of the field guide, but remarkably difficult to see when surrounded by green and yellow leaves! We move on. At a point not much further on, I am waxing lyrical about three birds visible in my telescope lens at the same time – Senegal Parrot, Abyssinian Roller and African Grey Hornbill – a riot of colours, a pure vision of vibrant African birdlife. I am in my own zone, totally enthralled, talking in hushed tones about the wonder of it all. I suddenly look up from my ‘scope, and realise I am totally alone. Everyone has moved on, and there is not a soul in sight. They can’t have gone far. It was only a moment ago when someone was here……wasn’t it? I listen….but my defective hearing just picks up the gentle swish of the breeze in the head-high dried grass and tree stems. I look up. Two Hooded Vultures are circling high above me. Moving along the track, I notice the path divides into three just before entering the high-stemmed grass. Which way did the group go? I listen, but there is not a sound. I do not panic. Best to wait…….someone will come back for me any moment…… won’t they? Is it my imagination, or are the vultures lower? I check my water bottle – still half full. I attempt a call. ‘Hello’. No reply. Louder. Still no reply. I think of taking my shirt off and tying it to a branch to wave above the grass…………..but suddenly a familiar voice as Tim emerges from the foliage and asks if I am OK. ‘Oh yes, fine,’ I say casually, ‘ thanks for coming back for me.’ I resolve to stay up with the group from now on.
We move on, stopping frequently to watch an incredibly varied array of birds of many different species. For me the birds of prey are the most exciting. A Long-crested Eagle sits in a tree, the wind gently catching its long crest and blowing it back and forth. A Grasshopper Buzzard moves from tree to tree, revealing its rufous, black-tipped wings. At last it stays still on its perch, and John decides to stalk it for some close-up photographs. Meanwhile a Green Turaco flies past us, the prettily named Bush Petronia (actually rather dull looking) and several other small birds entertain us as we wait in the shade of an acacia tree. We move off again towards a rapidly drying out lake, where we can see Black-winged Stilts, Sacred Ibises, Slender-billed Gulls, a single Purple Heron, Wattled Plovers, Greenshanks and many more familiar waders of several species. We wait under another tree for everyone to catch up, and soon we are seeing warblers, woodpeckers and even a Lesser Honeyguide (another new species for me). Local people used to follow the calls of the Honeyguide, as it could lead them to the honeycombs in bees’ nests. As we skirt the lake, Yellow-billed Storks fly high over distant trees, whilst Kites and Snake Eagles seek their evening meals all around. The bus has moved to meet us, and people already on it tell us they have just seen a Warthog! I’m glad we avoided that in the fading light. We move back towards camp and stop in the road in the gathering gloom to wait for owls and nightjars. JJ skilfully mimics the call of the Pearl-spotted Owlet, and gets an immediate response from the real bird! It’s too dark to see now, but the Owlet calls and calls. A flitting shape is recorded as a Long-tailed Nightjar, and someone glimpses a huge Verreaux’s Eagle Owl as it flies across the road. It is the last bird of an enthralling day.
Back at camp, it’s dinner, roll-call, and bed. Tomorrow is another day, another country. Tomorrow we’re off to Senegal!
By Kayleigh Brookes on January 25, 2016
We are almost at the end of our extended Osprey trip to West Africa! We have had such a wonderful time. Our final few days have been spent at Tanji in the Gambia. We arrived on Thursday 21st January, after driving from Tendaba. The first thing we did upon arrival was visit Tanji Marsh, a great place for Ospreys, and also a place where we knew there was a Rutland bird wintering, who we hoped we would see. We were not disappointed! As we scanned through the numerous Ospreys sitting on stumps in the marsh, we came across a dark-breasted female, with a blue ring on her right leg… sure enough, it was 5F! 5F fledged from a nest at Rutland Water in 2012, and 30(05) is her mum!
We saw around 20 birds in total, 10 all at once sitting near each other on the stumps! What an amazing place!
We visited the marsh several times over the three and a half days we were in the area. One of the birds we saw this year was 8XU, a German male. The Osprey team first saw this bird here as a juvenile in January 2014. He was sitting in a distant tree, watching an unringed adult female who was feeding from a needle-fish. The bird will be three years old this year, and should have returned to his natal grounds for the first time in 2015. How brilliant to see him here again, and know that he has successfully migrated here, home, and back again!
On Friday morning, we went on a boat trip out to Bijoli Island. The island is a mere spit of sand, but it was a gold-mine for Ospreys! We saw about ten in total, some fishing, some eating fish on the sand, some perched. There were also several other bird species around, Caspian Terns, a plethora of Gulls, Sanderlings, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers, and a Pomarine Skua flew past! Several Turnstones were cheekily trying to steal fish from the Ospreys as they ate, and one Gull managed to take off with the tail of a fish – straight out of the Osprey’s mouth!
The eco-camp we stayed at was very close to a beach, and we had a lovely walk down it to a lagoon, where we saw several Ospreys!
We also visited another lovely beach, where we stood beneath the shade of a pine tree to watch a great number of Ospreys come to fish just off the shore. One Osprey fished incredibly close to us in the shallow waves as we wandered steadily down the beach – it caught an enormous fish, and was so close binoculars were not necessary!
For those of you who are wondering, the title of this blog is courtesy of Paul Stammers, and pertains to the beautiful tree-like patterns the receding tide carves into the sand. See the photos below by Kayleigh.
We would like to say a huge thank you to the group of volunteers who were with us for ten days at the beginning of this trip. It seems like such a long time ago that you left us! We thoroughly enjoyed spending time in your company, it was great fun and you are all fantastic. We would also like to thank JJ, our brilliant guide, for his help and guidance throughout our trip.
We hope you have all enjoyed reading all about our African adventures, and seeing John’s superb photographs!
By Kayleigh Brookes on January 21, 2016
We had planned to go to Lompoul to the Camp du Desert on Saturday morning (16th). However, there was a slight hiccup in the plans, related to a vehicle issue, that meant we did not leave until Sunday evening! Thus, we had to stay an extra night at Les Manguiers de Guereo, and spend a bit more time at the river mouth watching Ospreys (not a bad thing)! We eventually arrived at the Camp du Desert in the dark at about 9pm, where we had dinner and settled into our respective tents. It’s a super place to experience the wilder, rural side of Africa. There is no electricity in the camp, and the toilets and showers are all outdoors!
On Monday morning we rose early and headed off to find 30(05)! As we drove steadily up the beach towards 30’s wintering area, we suddenly spotted an Osprey on the sand to our left. John exclaimed, “There she is, that’s her!” and immediately raised his camera. I excitedly lifted my binoculars to my eyes and looked at 30 in close-up, I could see the satellite-transmitter’s aerial on her back! It was a great moment.
We parked the car and got out, heading up towards the trees to get a good look at 30, who had returned to her perch and sat there quite happily. We stood there for quite a while, watching 30 and hoping she might go fishing.
We didn’t see her fish, but later we saw her flying around carrying of a needle-fish!
We stood in the shade of the trees and looked around at the area. It’s a perfect area for Ospreys to winter, a lovely long beach (if you ignore all the litter), the sea in close proximity for fishing purposes, and acres of woodland behind. It’s no wonder this coastline is packed with Ospreys!
After spending some time with 30, we headed north up the beach to look for more colour-ringed birds, of which we found many! As the birds are less likely to spook and fly off at a vehicle than at people on foot, we drove along the shore with John and his camera hanging out of the window! We saw around 100 Ospreys, some of which were ringed. Most of the ringed Ospreys were from Germany, and some from Scotland. It isn’t easy to capture the ring numbers, especially from a moving vehicle, but John is a whiz with the camera! It was a great day – to see so many Ospreys all in one place, some catching fish, some perched, some flying.
Being able to see colour rings and find out where some of the Ospreys are from, was brilliant, not to mention seeing 30(05), an Osprey whom I have seen in England at Rutland Water! It was also interesting to see some of the locals using the beach!
We did have a few car issues during the day – despite letting some air out of the tyres it kept stuck in the deep sand! The tide did not help much, as it was so high it forced us to drive further inland in the softer sand.
As we arrived at the desert camp a day late, we stayed an extra day and night, and spent Tuesday there too. Tuesday morning was much the same as Monday, with some of the same birds, some different ones. We avoided high tide on Tuesday though, and headed back to the camp for a walk through the desert in the afternoon. It was brilliant walking through the desert! It was so vast and unspoilt, apart from a few footprints!
We were surprised, as we stood on the highest sand dune, to hear an Osprey calling. John picked it out in the trees behind us, perching, and then he spotted another one sitting on the sand eating! We couldn’t believe it – that woodland must have been at least 5km from the sea, which means there must be a lot of Ospreys in the area.
On Wednesday we had to leave the desert camp to head back down to Gambia, a journey which took us 9.5 hours! We stayed one night in Tendaba camp, then moved onto Tanji on Thursday. News from Tanji will follow at the weekend!
All of the above photographs were taken by Field Officer John Wright.
By Kayleigh Brookes on January 15, 2016
I will never ever tire of watching Ospreys fish – it is an incredible experience. Here in Africa, the views we are getting of Ospreys catching fish are second to none.
Yesterday we went to the river mouth again, and had several Ospreys flying over us and fishing. One bird caught a fish very close to where we were standing, and the bird’s execution of the act was pure poetry. Gracefully she sailed down towards the water, legs outstretched, and, almost in slow motion, she extended her talons and delicately plucked a huge fish from near the surface of the water, with one foot! Then she proceeded to fly away with it. Easy.
Here is a sequence of photos showing the bird fishing, taken by John Wright.
Later in the day, we walked down towards the mangroves to attempt to get close to the Ospreys we had seen from the boat, that were sitting on sand/mud banks. We waded out through the shallow waters of the receding tide, found a quiet corner in which to stand, and waited.
We were not disappointed. An Osprey would soar into view, plunge towards the water and catch a fish, then fly away to perch in a tree and eat it. Then another Osprey would come along. At one point there were four Ospreys in the air in front of us, all attempting to fish. Some were more successful than others in their attempts. It was fantastic to watch their aerial acrobatics as they tumbled and swooped, diving fast and pulling out, diving again and plunging in with a splash, to emerge triumphant, clutching a fish. One Osprey grabbed a rather large fish and held on to it with just one talon! The fish was squirming and wriggling, and the Osprey struggled to hold on, trying to grab the fish’s head with her other foot. Eventually, the Osprey lost her grip and dropped it. Here is another great sequence from John!
Whilst we were there, a group of five Black Crowned Cranes flew in, and landed on a little island nearby! We stood as still as we could, blending into the trees so as not to startle the birds, and as such had some lovely views of the group feeding. The group consisted of four adults and a juvenile.
On the way back, we saw an Osprey perched on top of a sign to a fish restaurant!
Today we went on another boat trip with Babucarr, and had some more excellent Osprey sightings! Several birds caught fish very close to us. One particular highlight was a German Osprey, with leg ring AL33, who perched for a long time on a little bit of tree root, and allowed the boat to inch ever nearer to him, gifting us some superb views.
John carried out a bit of extreme digiscoping in order to photograph AL33 on his perch – leaning over the side of the boat with the tripod in the water!
We’ve had such an amazing time at the Somone Lagoon, staying at the lovely Les Manguiers de Guereo. The view from the pool area, looking down towards the lagoon, is superb!
Tomorrow we are heading north towards Lompoul to find our satellite-tagged female, 30(05)! The data we are receiving from her satellite-transmitter lets us know her position. Here are some maps showing her location over the past few months. As you can see from the cluster of red dots, she doesn’t move much from her favourite spot on the beach! Paul and John have been to see her before, of course, so they know exactly where to expect her to be! We will bring you news of the next step of our adventure when we return from the desert next week!
By Tim on January 15, 2016
My GPS told me that we were in exactly the right spot. As our wooden fishing boat slowly made its way through the calm waters of the Sine-Saloum delta an Osprey came into view. It was perched inconspicuously in the mangroves beside the channel that we had seen it fly up yesterday; it had to be the same bird. Knowing it to be very wary, we inched our way towards the Osprey. I had my telescope with me, but it would be impossible to read the blue ring on the bird’s right leg from the boat. Instead the only way we would be able to identify it would be if John Wright could get a photo of the ring. However, just as were getting within the range of John’s 400mm lens, the bird flew off. We expected it to head off into the mangroves, but by some twist of fate, it turned and circled in front of us. Through my binoculars the blue ring was clearly visible and knowing John’s skills with a camera I knew that he would get the photos we needed. As Kayleigh explained in her excellent blog a few days ago, he did just that and we were able to identify the bird as 32(11). Cue all round elation and, for a moment, a boat that almost capsized!
While John, Paul and Kayleigh continue to enjoy an Osprey frenzy at the Somone Lagoon in Senegal, myself and the ten volunteers who joined us for ten days in Gambia and Senegal, flew back to the UK yesterday evening. When I look back on the trip, identifying the highlight isn’t difficult. After five years of trying, finding a Rutland Osprey on its wintering grounds was a magical moment. Here was an Osprey that we had watched hatch in the Manton Bay nest in 2011, return to Rutland two years later and then breed for the first time last summer. Finding it on its wintering grounds in one of the most spectacular places in Senegal was the final piece in the jigsaw. The fact that the bird is the grandson of the famous Mr Rutland, the mate of our satellite-tagged bird, 30(05), and the father of the 100th Rutland Osprey chick, makes finding him even more special.
Having said our goodbyes to Kayleigh, John and Paul on Tuesday morning, myself, JJ and the volunteers made the long journey back to Tendaba in The Gambia in the capable hands of our excellent driver, Alagie. Tendaba is a wonderful place to enjoy Africa at its best, and shortly after crossing the River Gambia at Farefenni we were treated to stunning views of a pair of Bateleur Eagles perched together in a roadside tree. It certainly made the 10.5 hour journey a little more bearable!
With just two days left of our trip, we were keen to visit two of the schools involved in the Osprey Flyways Project. The first was Wurokang Lower Basic School, a tiny rural school situated just a few kilometres from Tendaba Camp. JJ visited the school for the first time a few weeks ago and so we dropped off some copies of Ozzie’s Migration for the students (and teachers) to read. They were particularly excited to meet the book’s author, Ken Davies. Then yesterday morning, on our way to the airport, we stopped off to see our friends at Tanji Lower Basic School. We were greeted by teachers and members of the Osprey club, and shown the new computer lab which was funded by a generous grant from Melton Mowbray Rotary Club. We learnt that the computers have a made a great deal of difference at the school; not only allowing students to participate in Skype calls as part of World Osprey Week, but also giving them basic IT skills that simply wouldn’t have been possible before. Before we left Jackie Murray presented the students with some copies of Be An Osprey Expert and also showed the teachers how to access the teaching resources that are available for all WOW schools to use for free.
A few hours later, as we flew home we were treated to a spectacular sunset over the Sahara. It made me think of the amazing journeys that the Ospreys make every year, but also about the friendships and links that have been forged between people thousands of miles apart as a result of those migrations. As he sat in the mangroves at the Sine-Saloum delta, 32(11) was just doing what comes naturally, but for those of us lucky enough to the boat to see him, it was a sight that summed up how special the project has become.