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By Kayleigh Brookes on February 23, 2016
I love this time of year. Technically it is still winter, but there are already indications that suggest spring is on its way. There is never a distinct change from season to season, an abrupt transformation that switches the seasons from one to the next. The changes are slow and gradual, which lengthens the sweet anticipation of the next season’s coming.
In recent days, the amount of daylight is noticeably lengthening, and whilst the air temperature has still been cold, there has been a greater occurrence of sunshine. The sun is beginning to gain in strength, and has a definite warmth in it, doing its best to counter-act the still chilly winds. One of the amazing things the sun does is warms up the grass and vegetation, creating a beautiful smell which can only be described as warm and spring-like. Summer is full of the smell of warm grass, but it has been such a long time since we have encountered this wonderful odour, it comes as a pleasant surprise. Another beautiful spring smell is the sweet smell of the wild garlic or ramsons – Allium ursinum. This plant forms carpets in woodlands, and is an indicator of ancient woodland. It is commonly found in verges and under hedgerows, demonstrating that the area used to be wooded.
Other subtle signs of spring that are beginning to show include an increase in bird activity, particularly song. During the winter months, most birds fall silent, having no reason to defend a territory or attract a mate. This is predominantly noticed in birds which form flocks in the winter, such as finches and tits. Some, of course, such as the warblers, migrate in the winter, and a sure sign of spring is when these birds return and once again fill the air with their delightful songs. For the moment, one or two more birds, great tits and blue tits mostly, are beginning to sing again, bringing a distinct spring-like feel to the day.
One of the only birds that will still sing in winter is the robin, as they remain solitary and defend a territory all year round. Their winter song is different to that of their spring voice, is more melancholy, and so as spring approaches the song of the robin will change into a happier tune.
Flowers are already beginning to bloom. Snowdrops flower very early, and have been in evidence for a few weeks already. Other early spring flowers such as primroses are also beginning to react to the longer days. The bluebells will be next, as the bright green basal leaves are already appearing. Soon, the meadow in front of the Lyndon Centre will be full of respendent yellow cow-slips.
Another form of excitement that this time of year brings is the return of the ospreys, which at the present moment is perhaps only three weeks away. Soon they will become restless on their wintering grounds, feeling unsettled. Something is changing in them, a deep instinct that dictates they must leave the spot they have perched in for six months, and undertake a long journey northwards. We can keep an eye on 30(05), who wears a satellite-tracker telling us her movements. When it comes to all of the others, we can only wait for them patiently, whilst enjoying the coming of spring.
By Kayleigh Brookes on February 16, 2016
Back to Tendaba : The Final Phase
Tuesday January 12th :
It’s a sad parting of the ways this morning. While Tim and JJ are leading the main group back through Senegal to Tendaba, Paul, Kayleigh and John will stay here until the weekend, when JJ will return and take them further up the coast towards 30(05)’s wintering grounds for more adventures in the Desert Camp at Lompoul.
We say our goodbyes, and look forward to meeting up again back in the UK. With the departure of Paul, the post of bird-list recorder (‘Oracle’) has to be temporarily filled for the last two nights. Tim suggests I do it, and I accept the privilege with due humility. This also means I get to inherit Paul’s seat on the bus, and move into my new position! People call out birds as they see them on the journey, and I note them down in readiness for tonight’s roll-call.
The journey is long, bumpy, dusty and hot. We think it will take about ten hours. There are plenty of distractions though – colourful birds like Green Wood Hoopoes, a Red-necked Falcon at a loo-stop (new one for the trip), and more views, albeit from the moving bus, of Swallow-tailed Kites. Apparently, we hear, the bus is using more fuel than it should be owing to some loose bits in the exhaust system which will need attention before too long. Meanwhile we rumble on along the dusty tracks. Sitting up here near the front increases my admiration for driver Alajie and JJ. There are no road-signs (apart from the inevitable ‘Deviation 40 kms’ diversion signs), and the ‘road’ frequently splits into two or even three dusty tracks. How do they know which one to follow? Earth-moving monsters obliterate the view with their dust-clouds. ‘It’ll be good when it’s all finished’, says someone. That’ll be in about a hundred years at this rate.
A few hours later, and the Senegal/Gambia border is in sight. Maureen and Jackie volunteer to write out all our passport details while Tim and Chris read them out, and then we wait as JJ and Tim head off to a little office. While we wait, we notice that just a few metres over the border, in Gambia, there is a proper, made up road! Hurrah! An end at last to back-jangling bumps, ruts and holes! The chaps return with our passports, and we move forwards smoothly (well, comparatively smoothly) into Gambia. The passport authorities did not want Jackie and Maureen’s neatly written lists – they insisted on making their own! Global bureaucracy is the subject of my next blog.
We are close to the ferry now, so we decide to have a late lunch there (approx. 3.00pm). As ever, the environs of the ferry are bustling and crowded, with long lines of heavy vehicles waiting to cross, their drivers often sleeping beneath their vehicles in the shade. We drive past them all, right to the front of the queue, and take our place ready to board the ferry when it comes back. The tide is wrong, and loading vehicles might be difficult, we are told. Traders once again surround the bus. Jackie spots a man selling fabric of a higher quality than usual, and before long two lengths of the deep blue cloth are purchased after the requisite ‘discussion’ about prices.
We decide to have our lunch here – the usual fare of fresh crusty bread, tinned tuna, rather squashy and black bananas from yesterday, and a strange selection of biscuits, cake and Bassett’s jelly babies (the latter supplied by Chris D). Unfortunately one of the Tuna tins does not have a ring-pull, so Tim attacks it with Jackie’s Swiss army knife, much to the amusement of a man standing by the door and trying to sell us Coca-Cola. Having tried various differently-shaped little tools on the knife, and on the point of throwing the whole contraption (tin and all) into the river, Tim makes a breakthrough and the juicy Tuna is revealed. We eat in the hot, sticky bus, crumbs and juice everywhere, but it goes down very well. We feel like real explorers, saved just on the edge of starvation.
Just as we are finished and mopping up the debris, the order comes to evacuate the bus. It has to be lighter to get onto the ferry. We walk on board, with approximately ten thousand other people, lorries, cars, bundles of luggage, babies, saucepans, two goats, a pallet of bricks, several coils of rope, and a pile of car tyres. We cram down one of the aisles on the side of the ferry, scarcely able to raise our arms. I note a Palm Nut Vulture in the trees – probably the same one we saw when we passed in the opposite direction last week. I realise the wriggling form next to my head is a baby, tightly strapped onto its mother’s back.
We are soon on the south side of the Gambia River again. Alajie skilfully gets the bus off the ferry – not an easy task with the tide like this. Soon we are on our way, refreshed, excited and not a little relieved to be safely across the river. Many thanks to JJ and Alajie for great driving, navigation, and diplomatic expertise!
A little further on, we pull off the road at a spot in a town where some men and boys are working on cars and other vehicles. As we suspected earlier, the roads in Senegal have taken their toll on Alajie’s bus, and some welding work is necessary on the nether regions of the exhaust system before we can go much further. After brief negotiations, a man is under the bus with the welding equipment. No-one tells us to get off, but we think it might be wise! As always, small boys gather round us and chatter away. They tell us their names (Bouba, Lamin and Kedda) and they write them in my note-book. They come here every day after school, they say, and learn how to mend cars. They point out their boss, and he grins back at us. They point to their school too, just up the road, and explain how they go there every day, but only in the mornings. They like colouring books to do at home. Do we have any? Sadly no, but noted for next time. By about 4.30, the bus is mended, and everyone is happy. Can you imagine getting things done that quickly back at home? ‘Well, I’ll have to book you in – a week Tuesday is the quickest I can do it. Might take a couple of days as well.’
We’ve added loads of birds for tonight’s roll-call – my debut! On one stretch we find several Chestnut-bellied Starlings – a colourful bird of the countryside and yet another one for the trip-list. Not far from the turn down to Tendaba, we have an incredible piece of luck, another of those ‘champagne moments’ ………..
JJ knows a tree on the right hand side of the road, a tree that often holds a surprise. He is quick to notice two large birds on a bare branch, and Alajie brings the bus to a quick halt on the verge. We pile out, binocs and ‘scopes ready.
Bateleurs!! Two of them, in the tree, fully visible, unconcernedly preening. Surely one of the most magnificent of the eagles – coal black in body, with the exception of a chestnut patch on the back and grey wing coverts. Legs and face bright red, practically no tail. Whole package positively brilliant! The Bateleur is another of those birds, like the Swallow-tailed Kite, that I have wanted to see for well over fifty years, so this is a very special moment. I stand and watch. One of the Bateleurs sidles up to the other and starts to preen its feathers – obviously some pair-bonding going on here. They are not in the ‘big eagle’ class, but they are dumpy and powerful, and when they fly, apparently (this pair do not) they look like some strange delta-wing aircraft, wing-tips swept back, exaggerating the tailless look. And what about that name – Bateleur – where does that come from? Old books sometimes call this bird ‘Mountebank Eagle’, mountebank meaning a travelling vendor of medicines, who entertains the crowd by juggling or tightrope walking and then sells his wares. Another writer suggests that a ‘bateleur’ is the name used for the long pole a tight-rope walker uses to keep his balance. Magical name, magical bird! I’m going to enjoy saying it at roll-call tonight!
We move on, long journey forgotten, hunger and thirst alleviated, bus mended, spirits high. Reaching Tendaba Camp again, having lodged my luggage in Hut 16 with the help of the smiling Kaddy, I’m straight to the bar and raising my beer- bottle to the wonderful Bateleurs, not forgetting the part the ever alert JJ has played in their discovery. At the beginning of this trip I listed three target-birds (besides one of the Rutland Ospreys) that I would love to find, and now, with one day still to go, I have seen two of them. Pretty good going.
Dinner begins with a toast to absent friends. We miss them, but also envy them their extra stay up in Senegal. I don’t eat a lot this evening – I know I have an important duty to perform in a few minutes. I shuffle my papers and make sure everything is ready. It’s a hard act to follow, but I’ll do my best Paul……
Tim calls for order and ‘roll-call’ begins. I try to invest it with the correct amount of gravitas, as the genuine ‘Oracle’ always does. The phrase ‘I’m turning the page’ brings dignity to proceedings I think. One third of the way down page two, I pronounce the magic word : ‘Bateleur’, and the tick is place in the appropriate column (Day 9). Wow, it gives me the shivers just writing it up now.
Another beer goes down amazingly well tonight, but I need to get some notes written before the memories fade. I wander off to my hut in totally the wrong direction, until calls from friends still at the bar remind me that it’s just the river down that way. I re-adjust and I’m fine – the mental satnav clicks in and I’m straight to the door of No.16. Shrieking Bateleurs and echoing roll-calls reverberate around my head, but I’m soon under the mosquito net, and then I hear nothing more.
Wednesday January 13th :
Our final full day, and we’re out early on a woodland walk down a track off the main Tendaba – Banjul road. JJ leads the way as we leave the bus and go out into a recently burnt area of scrub and scattered trees. I made the mistake of wearing light-coloured trousers today, and they’re soon turning black after pushing through the ash-covered grassland. The new bird species keep coming – every tree and bush seems to hold something interesting. I reckon that our 200th species for the trip is the Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark – the male being pointed out to me now is a really striking bird moving about in the grass. Other notable species include dazzling African Golden Orioles, a Nuthatch-like Northern Crombec deftly climbing up a tree, a male Cut-throat Finch displaying that decisive slash of red on its neck, and more giant Abyssinian Ground Hornbills strutting around in the dry grass, the males displaying their grotesque head gear to full advantage. ‘Now that’s a beak,’ someone says. Beyond them, a shape in a tree suddenly sprouts arms and legs – a large monkey called a Patas, also known as Red Monkey in these parts. Further on we encounter a boy looking after a flock of sheep. He has a donkey too, which tolerates the Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on its flanks, but flicks them off if they get too close to its ears or eyes. It is odd for us to meet Kingfishers so far away from water, but there are two species here which live in this sort of habitat – Striped Kingfishers and Grey-headed Kingfishers – and they both prove to be very attractive and popular additions to our observations. Those who are familiar with the calls of the birds catch a new sound and go in search of an active but elusive bird giving out a long, far-carrying whistle. It’s a Brubru (a type of shrike) and we manage to see it (just) high in the tree. We pause for Hoopoes, Drongos, Canaries, Seedeaters, Queleas, Sunbirds, and many others before turning back towards the bus. Butterflies excite us too, especially one which is blue, grey and black – the photographers have fun trying to get a good shot, but we cannot name the species.
Just a few metres away from the bus, Chris D is concentrating through his ‘scope on a very distant large bird on the bare branch of a dead tree on the horizon. Even through my binoculars it looks enormous. A vulture perhaps? No, it’s not. It’s a Martial Eagle, for goodness sake! Through Chris’s ‘scope, and then through my own, I can see it clearly, its huge shape clearly outlined in the lens. The Martial Eagle is one of the most powerful birds of prey in the whole of Africa, and, even at this distance, it looks pretty formidable. Our bird does not move all the time we are watching it. Its underparts are white, contrasting with dark wings and back. It is awesome to see one – and of course it’s the third bird on my wish list. Swallow-tailed Kite, Bateleur, and now Martial Eagle! Bring on roll-call tonight!
Next we fit in a quick visit to Wurokang Lower Basic School (motto : Hard Work, Discipline, Success). JJ did an Osprey talk here for parents, teachers and pupils, and we are calling in now to introduce ourselves and say ‘Hello’. As soon as we leave the bus we are surrounded by small figures in blue, who hold our hands, tell us their names, and ask ours. Tim and JJ greet the Head and his colleagues at the door, and we present them with two copies of ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ and pose for photographs. Meanwhile the two Chris’s are enjoying an impromptu game of football with the boys – a pretty wild game it is too. Away to the side some older children are attacking the ground with machetes, shovels and picks, preparing it for some sort of sporting event soon. We leave with much waving. We wish them all well.
Back at Tendaba Camp at 12.30, we sit down on the jetty with a celebratory beer (well, how else to acknowledge a Martial Eagle?), with Ospreys passing by and Dolphins playfully breaching in the river. A Yellow-billed Stork passes over, and Jackie reports an African Hobby, which we managed to miss down here on the jetty. Lunch is as always a jolly affair, tempered by the fact that we are nearing the end of our African idyll. Afterwards, chatting with JJ, he suggests I might like to choose a wife from the five African women currently on view in the bar. I decline politely. He is joking……….isn’t he?
Our final trip takes us onto the woodland area above Tendaba Camp again, and we enjoy a last look at some familiar birds, and a few new ones too. Someone has found Bruce’s Green Pigeon, but by the time I catch up I can’t see Bruce or his pigeon. A Tawny Eagle tries hard not to be seen, but Tim spots it hiding in the foliage of a large tree. And a Grey-headed Bush-shrike – a medley of greens, greys and yellows – is an unexpected bonus. The heat is really oppressive here, even though it’s gone 6.00pm, and we rest on a low wall by one of the so-called ‘Irish Crossings’ on the road to the Camp. As the light fades, Rollers flit about pretending to be Nightjars, and we get a good view, in silhouette on a branch against the moonlit deep blue sky, of the splendid Verreaux’s Eagle Owl as it prepares for its night time activities. The hoped for Standard-winged Nightjar does not appear, but our vigil is rewarded late-on by the flickering flypast of another Long-tailed Nightjar. It’s the final curtain. We are all ready for dinner.
My second roll-call is once again attended with due reverence, and several new species, including the magnificent Martial Eagle, are added to the list. Afterwards, we decide to conduct a little survey to discover the most popular bird sightings of the whole trip. Each person is invited to submit their six favourite bird moments – excluding, of course, the finding of Osprey 32(11) in Senegal, which we assume would be top of everyone’s list. The slips of paper are collected in, calibrated and checked. ‘The results are in’ :
Unsurprisingly the birds of prey do very well, with Swallow-tailed Kite and Bateleur receiving many votes, but there is a lot of support for the Pearl-spotted Owlet, Grey-headed and Striped Kingfishers, the Ground Hornbills and the Grey-headed Bush-shrike. Cameo performances by the Black Storks (27 of them!), the ‘kettle’ of Vultures including the ‘King’ (Lappet-faced), the Woolly-necked Storks and African Spoonbills over the river, the Rufous-crowned Roller on the wire with the girl selling milk beneath – all these receive honourable mentions. And people also remember the Bearded Barbets, Grasshopper Buzzards, Fish Eagles, Brubru and Goliath Herons, and of course the impressive Martial Eagle. Our talisman for the whole trip is the Osprey, but close behind, in many people’s view, is the poise and slender beauty of the Abyssinian Roller, which we have seen on every day of our trip, but never tire of admiring.
Back in Hut 16 for my last night, I am immediately conscious that an African family has moved into the adjoining room just the other side of a flimsy partition. The man’s voice is loud and deep, the responses of his female companion(s) lighter. They seem so close it’s like being in bed with them. I don’t understand a word, but they seem to be having fun – until the man has a sneezing fit and is in danger of bursting through into my side of the hut. By 2.00am it’s quiet. All part of the rich tapestry of African life.
Thursday January 14th :
7.15 am : Dawn on the Gambia River. I’m sitting on the bus, awaiting departure, flicking back through my journal, re-living all the marvellous moments both here and in Senegal, since we arrived eleven days ago.
We certainly intend to make the most of our final day.
Our first stop is at a wetland area on the road to Banjul, called Bulok. A Dark Chanting Goshawk is on the telegraph pole just as we leave the bus, and very quickly we are scanning across the ditches and muddy flat area and the surrounding trees, and racking up new species for the trip one after the other. In quick succession we add African Jacana – the famous Lily Trotter – , Violet Turaco, Black-headed Heron and Yellow-throated Leaflove! It’s the first time we’ve seen habitat quite like this, which explains our joy in locating the Jacanas at last – a real wetland speciality. In addition, starlings of three species, Squacco and Purple Herons, a pair of Grey Woodpeckers, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Harrier Hawk, and Bruce’s Green Pigeon (good old Bruce) all put on good shows for us. Just as we are getting back on the bus, JJ spots a Northern Puffback, and shows it to Maureen. It’s our last new species of the trip.
Just a little way further on, we stop to deliver more books and pencils to the Head of the Wurokang School which we visited yesterday. JJ quips he that he will be back soon, making sure that the pupils have read the books and become real ‘Osprey Experts!’
Our next call is Tanji Lower Basic School, a few miles south of Banjul Airport. JJ is a regular visitor here, and we were last here two years ago when, together with generous funding from Melton Mowbray Rotary, we were able to help them install computer equipment for the children. Now we have come back to see how they are doing. As we arrive, hundreds of children are running about in the large sandy square, with buildings on all four sides. They greet us warmly, and so do their teachers. We are taken into the computer room, and the machines are switched on. Chairs are set out for us, and a group of young people come in and take seats in front of us. They are all members of ‘The Osprey Club’ !! How cool is that! An ‘Osprey Club’ here in Gambia! We are treated to a song, some short speeches of thanks to us by the Head and some of his staff, and then the children read in turn some facts about Ospreys, with applause after each one has finished. After the formal part is over, Tim ‘logs on’ to the website so that Jackie can demonstrate how the school can make use of all the resources which are on there, and then she presents the Head with some copies of her new book ‘Osprey Expert’. These cause lots of interest, and the children want to start doing the puzzles straightaway! I only have one copy of ‘Ozzie’ left, so I give it to one of the teachers and he immediately asks a girl to read it aloud to me. She does so really fluently, and Sarah takes our picture. A very good moment.
Outside in the sunshine, our whole group lines up with members of The Osprey Club for more photographs, and then we have to leave, after much hand-shaking and promises to keep in touch. JJ will of course be returning here, talking to the children and hopefully taking them out sometimes to see Ospreys for themselves.
Tanji Marsh is just a short distance away, winter home of a large number of European Ospreys, including our own 5F, who has been here for several winters now. We don’t have long – we have to be at the airport at 2.00 – so we quickly consume our last picnic of crusty bread, tuna and watermelon, and then we skip down to the lagoons to see if by any remote chance 5F is at home today. Chris W’s Gambian friend Fansu has come to meet him, and he joins us in the search. Of course it’s a forlorn hope – there are plenty of Ospreys here, but not the one with the blue ring on the right leg. Tim has his shoes and socks off and is in the shallows with his ‘scope to get a better angle on one or two suspects, but time is against us, and we have to leave. The airport is still 45 minutes away. Ospreys are flying over the main Banjul road as we emerge from the marsh. Chris will have the pleasure of finding 5F when he returns here with Fansu in February.
After heartfelt farewells to Alajie and JJ, we slump in the departure lounge and take stock. It’s been an absolutely brilliant trip, and the principal reason for that has been the wonderful camaraderie and friendship that has built up amongst us, not just amongst those here at the airport, but also the three still up in Senegal. Thank you to you, one and all –
Tim, John, Paul, Kayleigh, Jackie, Liz, Chris D, Jan, Margaret, Chris W, Maureen, Chris N, Sarah, JJ, Alajie.
11.00pm : Gatwick Ibis Hotel, UK : Room 120 : Alone in my hotel room, with a cup of tea and a ginger nut biscuit, I conduct a silent and solitary roll-call for Day 11. Five new species added.
Total for the whole trip (unofficial) : 227.
Final numbers to be confirmed after the return of the No.1 Oracle.
By Kayleigh Brookes on February 9, 2016
African Diary Part 3 : Further North in Senegal
Saturday January 9th :
After all the excitement at Keur Saloum and the finding of 32(11), it really is difficult for us to leave this idyllic place this morning, and the mood amongst us is quite subdued as JJ and Alajie load up the trusty bus again, securing our luggage on the roof rack with rope and a net. The mutual support and genial humour which unites our tight-knit group at every moment of every day is one of the major reasons for the huge success of our mission so far. The mood soon lightens as we look forward to new challenges and adventures further north on the Senegal coast.
At 8.30am we pull off the road by the side of a lake, surrounded by lush woodland and tangled undergrowth. The place is alive with birds. Hundreds of Red-chested Swallows descend and skim the water, two Ospreys fly from tree-perches, a Giant Kingfisher is motionless on a dead branch overhanging the water. JJ wanders off, whistling the call of the Pearl-spotted Owlet again, and receiving an almost immediate response. We follow down the road, and soon we get a glimpse of the Owlet flying across the road. It is clearly puzzled by this apparent rival in such close proximity, and it perches in a tree in full view. ‘A small owl with rounded head, no ear-tufts and a rather long tail’ – perfectly described in the field guide! Cameras are once again working overtime, and the photographers will have amazing shots. It has two dark eye-spots on its nape – literally eyes in the back of its head! An amazing adaptation which must be incredibly scary to the small birds and mammals which make up its prey. The Owl does us another favour too – other birds object to its presence and attempt to ‘mob’ it, hopping about aggressively in front of it. In this way we are treated to superb views of many species, including the dashing male Yellow-crowned Gonolek, energetic Babblers, a male Redstart, and (another new one for me) a White-crowned Robin Chat. It would be easy to stay here for a while, but we have a long way to go, and must move on.
Two hours later, just after 10.30am, the bus pulls up again on the edge of some extensive wetland just before the busy town of Kaolack. Not too far away, 27 Black Storks are resting on the sandy surface, hunched with necks drawn in almost like human figures, adults showing red legs, red bills, juveniles more soberly attired. They are migrants from Europe. It is unusual to see so many together, even on migration. They are usually solitary or in small groups, unlike their near relative the White Storks, which migrate in flocks of hundreds, thousands even. Beyond the Black Storks, shimmering in the heat haze, a distant pink and white mass separates just enough for us to make out its identity – a crowd of Greater Flamingos.
Our long, dusty journey continues. JJ leaps out at one point to buy bread, fish and fruit for our lunch. Kaolack is a large, sprawling, noisy town which seems to go on for ages, but eventually we are clear of it and driving through an increasingly wild and arid landscape, broken up only by a few trees and bushes, the odd group of huts, and donkeys, cows and goats. The bus is quiet. People are nodding off. I try and stay awake. I don’t want to miss any of this. At 12.30 John shouts ‘Booted Eagle!’ and I am just in time to see a smallish very pale Eagle fly right to left over us. Quite a scarce visitor from Europe – I doubt if we will see another one.
Buoyed up by the Eagle, I keep watch from my window, and about fifteen minutes later I think I can see large raptorial birds circling together away to the right. Of course John has already spotted them, and as the bus comes to a halt on the verge he is out of the door and looking directly upwards. ‘Vultures!’ And there are loads of them, circling quite close to us now, in a ‘kettle’ – a several-storeyed layer of circling birds, silently surveying the ground beneath as they spiral above us. Perhaps they are homing in on a carcass nearby, or maybe using this thermal of hot air to pass from one place to another. It is a marvellous sight. And several species are contained in this one view – White-backed, Eurasian Griffon, Ruppell’s Griffon and (most excitingly) two (at least) Lappet-faced Vultures, now sadly rare in these parts. Their bare pink necks, with folds of skin (lappets), might be repulsive to some, but to me they are stately galleons of the air, dwarfing their congeners, and fully deserving of their alternative name ‘King Vulture.’ It’s a neck-cricking business looking directly upwards into the ‘kettle’, but hugely rewarding. There’s a Marabou Stork there too, massive bill out front and long legs out back. A pale Short-toed Eagle zips through and then goes into a dive – perhaps he wants to be first at the feast, which is surely not far away. As the scene passes over, we climb back into the bus with aching necks and sun-burned foreheads – yes, most of us forgot our hats in the rush to get off the bus and view the spectacle.
Not long after this Alajie finds a shaded spot off the road, and we stop for lunch – our usual fare of lovely fresh bread, tinned tuna and sardines, bananas and watermelon – the latter carved into huge juicy slices by JJ’s sharp knife. As always, local people appear from nowhere and view us from a respectful distance. This time it’s a group of youths under a neighbouring tree, and a very elderly man standing by the ‘bus. JJ has a word with him, and he waits. As we eat and drink, another White-backed Vulture flies over us. We are of no interest to him – he is hurrying to join the throng we witnessed a few miles back, perhaps now gorging on a deceased goat or donkey. Once we have all eaten our fill, the remains are distributed to the waiting old man and the youths. This makes me vaguely uneasy – something to think about.
During the long afternoon, we pass through Fatick, Tataguine and Thiadiaye, before reaching the quite major town of Mbour. The roads have long since ceased to be smooth and firm, and we rattle through street stalls and markets, dodging heavily laden donkey carts, past mosques, the occasional Catholic church, and thousands of brightly clad people going about their everyday lives. We have a window into their world from up here on the bus, and I never tire of watching these glimpses into lives so different from mine.
Not far to go now. Once we turn off not far from Nguekokh, it’s rough tracks all the way down to our destination at Somone – and the very welcome ‘Les Manguiers de Guereo’ Hotel! The Project has stayed here several times before, so we receive a very warm welcome (and a cold beer!) from our host Eric, before being shown to our very spacious and air-conditioned bungalows in the grounds. I think I’m going to like it here!
Our main purpose of coming here is of course to watch Ospreys fishing and resting in the Somone Lagoon, and just one hour after arrival we are down at the river mouth on the beach, with Ospreys flying all around us. The tides are not quite right at this time, but there are still enough Ospreys to keep us enthralled. In addition, there are hundreds of waders, gulls and terns, and John has already renewed acquaintance with a ringed Bar-tailed Godwit he first met here a few years back and has seen regularly since. It was ringed originally as a chick in Europe and then not seen for fourteen years until John spotted it here and successfully interpreted its ring combination so that it could be identified! It must have flown hundreds of thousands of miles during its annual migrations. As we are thinking of going back, a group of five Black-crowned Cranes fly in and drop into the mangroves to roost. The crests on their heads are silhouetted clearly. Hopefully we can see them again tomorrow.
Back at the hotel, another ‘Gazelle’ lager, a cooling shower, and a nice dinner. Paul’s roll-call of all the birds seen today is observed with well-deserved solemnity. Bed beckons. I enjoy the peace and tranquillity of an African night.
Sunday January 10th :
As Karen Blixen wrote in her sublime ‘Out of Africa’ (1937) :
‘In this air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart…….You woke up in the morning and thought : Here I am, where I ought to be.’
She may have been describing a different region of this continent, but I can still share her sentiment this fine morning, as I walk across the compound for a 6.30am breakfast, and prepare for another precious day with Ospreys and good companions. We reach the river mouth, and it is immediately apparent that the Ospreys are here in strength, and one hardly knows where to look first. They fish right in front of us, arcing down into the waves and plucking fish from the teeming shoals, before flying inland to find a place to eat. Others take their place, patrolling up and down the beach. Skuas are out there too, two or three Pomarines landing on the sea in the mid-distance, and the pale and elegant Audouin’s Gulls, visitors from the Mediterranean, mingle with more familiar species on the sandbanks.
After carefully examining every single Osprey for rings, John turns his attention to leg-rings and flags on other species, and in a short while has located individual gulls, terns and waders sporting coloured rings which prove they are from faraway places such as Sweden, Norway and Holland. Each combination will be noted down and sent for detailed investigation later.
As the morning goes by, local people start to open the bars, restaurants and kiosks at the top of the beach, traders begin to ply their wares, and foreign tourists (mainly French and German) claim the loungers on the sand. Turning my attention to the rough scrub beyond the beach and all the activities, I see a Senegal Coucal in a small tree, and then a Black-crowned Tchagra is revealed, its melancholy whistles giving its presence away. Turning back to the river mouth and the mangroves beyond, I am just in time to see the five Black-crowned Cranes leaving their night-time roost and heading off for the day. They’ll be back.
By 10.30am the main Osprey action is beginning to slow down, although there are always individuals about to watch. As we gather by the bus and decide what to do next, a Crested Lark wanders about on the sand, unnoticed by most people passing along the track on their way to the beach. A group of local women, some with babies on their backs and loads on their heads, begin to walk across the shallow river mouth in a stately procession, never hurrying, always erect and sure-footed as the water reaches their knees, thighs and even waists. An impressive human caravan.
A few of us decide not to go back to the Hotel on the bus, but to walk back through the mangroves, along muddy banks, occasionally through shallow water. As always this is the way to see the more elusive and shelter-seeking birds, and before long we are looking at a pair of Black Scrub Robins, the male cocking and fanning his long black and white tail. A pair of Veillot’s Barbets provide another distraction, while Prinias (I think Tawny-flanked) are in the same low bush. A well-marked green woodpecker with a red head is eventually identified as a Fine-spotted Woodpecker, but a juvenile Whydah defies accurate definition and must wait until John has consulted the fieldguide in detail. By 11.30 our group is united again on the terrace, cold drinks in hand, in my case writing the rough draft of these notes, and checking what we have seen this morning. The juvenile Whydah we saw earlier is finally pinned down as a Pin-tailed Whydah, yet another new species for the list.
By 1.30, after an early lunch, we are back on the beach to see the passing and fishing Ospreys again. As the tide changes, so more and more come along, including new ones displaying German rings on their legs. Each one is studied and photographed. By this time the beach is busy, and we become objects of curiosity for holidaying sun-seeking tourists. What are these strange people doing with their telescopes and binoculars, wading in the water with rolled-up trousers? A French woman from Biarritz approaches Sarah, and she explains that we are here to see the Ospreys – birds from Europe which in a few weeks will be making their way back to their northern homes in Scotland, England, Germany and yes, France too! I have a copy of ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ in my bag, and JJ takes the French woman through it in halting English and French. She wants to buy the book, but I don’t have many with me, so she takes an e-mail address and says she will order one after her vacation! I wonder if she will. As she returns to her lounger, I sit on a rock with JJ and the others. I ask him how he describes the Ospreys to children in schools when he is giving his talks, and he says he uses the Mandinka word K-U-L-A-N-J-A-N-G, which means any bird of prey which catches fish. He spells the word out with his finger in the sand. Tim then calls us all out into the water for a group photo, and just as we are posing for it, an Osprey flies over and he manages to get us and the Osprey in the frame at the same time! I look back to the beach and about six telescopes on their tripods are standing among the rocks, with sun-bathing people and beach traders in the background. A nice image. JJ buys a leather belt from one of the traders, ‘for a very good price’ he says. We start to walk back towards the bus, past a huge hole in the sand dug by a French family, and large enough to bury all their children, a few of whom are still down there, digging furiously. I resist the temptation to start to fill the hole in. The oncoming tide will do that pretty soon. An athletic-looking young man approaches us and introduces himself in English as a ranger from ‘Reserve de Bandia’, a conservation area just north of here. He has Ospreys there in good numbers, he says, and would welcome a visit from us. We will not be able to go, but maybe JJ, Paul, John and Kayleigh could drop in after their extended stay next week. I leave him with my business card (as always!) and we walk back to the faithful Alajie and his bus.
I enjoy a fantastic dinner, a couple of beers from the (free!!) bar, and eventually (with some difficulty) find Bungalow No. 15 in the dark. I’m recording the day’s events in my diary when a knocking at my window reminds me that I’ve managed to lock Chris out. Sleep soon follows.
Monday January 11th :
A very nice advantage of sharing Bungalow No. 15 with Chris W is that he’s got a kettle and a supply of tea-bags! So just before 6.00am it’s good to enjoy an early morning cup of tea and a biscuit. By 8.00am we’re down at the beach again, this time to meet our boatman who will be taking us into the Somone lagoons to see more of the Ospreys and other birds that are so profuse here. He appears to have two boats – a long fishing boat, and a small pedalo type craft which would be ideal if there were just three or four us. Maybe Kayleigh & Co can use it later on in the week, after we have gone. Once again the Ospreys do not disappoint, and there are many for us to check out in the first few minutes of our trip. At least two of these are carrying Scottish rings. While we are watching one, it dives into the water and emerges with a good-sized fish. It carries it off, away from us and out of sight, but we notice that a watching Fish Eagle has seen it and is off in pursuit of an easy meal. An Osprey carrying a fish is no match for a mighty Fish Eagle, and will probably have to abandon its hard-earned meal. We do not see the end of the chase.
As usual other birds abound. A large flock of Whimbrel has gathered just off an island, while Lesser Black-backed Gulls are also closely packed there. Slender-billed Gulls and African Spoonbills provide the supporting cast. The water is so shallow that our boatman frequently gets out of the boat and pushes us along, with the outboard switched off. A group of Black Scimitarbills, also known as Black Wood Hoopoes, give us the chance for a good look, my first of the entire trip. These are African endemics, long violet-black birds with decurved bills and impressive tails, well worth careful study. We drift for a long time, pursuing individual Ospreys and creeping up slowly on no fewer than five, resting on a spit of sand and pebbles. Not all their legs are visible, and John considers jumping ashore in order to get a better view, but landing is frowned upon here, and eventually we have to leave them and make our way back. It is bizarre to encounter more women wading across the lagoon, loads on their heads, babies on their backs, whilst we cruise along just a short distance away. They must know exactly where to place their feet. A fisherman casts his net as we pass, drawing it in again with several little silvery fish attached. Small silvery fish jump out of the water as we pass through the creeks, sun glinting on their scales.
A final highlight of the morning is an amazing bird spotted just outside the hotel grounds on our way back for lunch. After consultation with the reference books, the conclusion is that it is a male Sahel Paradise Whydah, flying around with its far less exciting juveniles and females, and showing off brilliant hues of black, chestnut and beige. A real stunner, and a new species not just for this trip, but for all previous Rutland Osprey expeditions to Africa.
After the excitement of the morning, and with the afternoon temperature just hitting 36 degrees C., I decide to have an afternoon off and take it easy in the air-conditioned comfort of the bungalow, with perhaps a little writing, a cold beer or two, maybe some washing of shirts and a long refreshing shower. So as some of the others return to the beach at 2.00pm, I put a few shirts and things to soak in the wash basins (yes, we have two!), open the bottle of Senegalese lager, and lie on the bed for a little while, maybe just fifteen minutes……
I awake with a start. I am aware instantly that there is someone else in the bungalow, and they’re in the bathroom. It can’t be Chris – they’ve only just gone back to the beach…..Then I look at my watch. It’s over an hour ago since I lay on the bed for a quick nap. Barefooted and unkempt, I stumble out of my room and am met with a vision…….a tall, elegant Senegalese woman, dressed from head to foot in a dazzling outfit of yellow, black and white, mopping out the shower in the bathroom and smiling at me. I have no idea what she is saying to me, but she is gabbling away in very swift French and no doubt explaining what she is doing. She points at the washing in the sink, makes what I think are washing gestures with her hands, and starts to load it all up into her basket. Before I can say anything other than a feeble ‘merci beaucoup’ she has gathered everything up and is on her way out, passing through Chris’ room and picking up a few things from his floor as well. She sways across the terrace, down the steps, and is gone.
Was that real? Am I still asleep on the bed? Yes, it was real, because my washing is gone. I look in the mirror, and recoil in fright. I need a shave, a hair-wash and a shower. What if she comes back with the washing and I still look like this? I move quickly, find a clean shirt, smarten myself up and then sit casually in the shade out on the terrace awaiting the return of my Senegalese apparition.
After a while I go back in again as the heat is still intense, even in the shade, and I sit in my cool room for a while. A sound on the window alerts me to a bird on the window sill, gently tapping the glass with its bill, fluttering up and down the glass, and then moving to the next pane to repeat the procedure. It’s a Yellow-billed Shrike. I’ve seen this sort of behaviour at home with Chaffinches. They see their own reflection in the glass and think it’s a rival bird in their territory. The Shrike is completely oblivious of me, and I can watch it at point-blank range. It’s still doing it when Chris returns later, and he takes a series of pictures.
When the Shrike finally leaves, I go back out onto the terrace and receive a surprise. There, on a rack, and fluttering gently in the drying breeze, are my shirts, trousers and other bits and bobs. Of my Senegalese laundress, there is no sign. I never see her again. At dinner that night, I try and tell the tale of my interesting afternoon. I think people believe I had one too many of those delicious lagers, or perhaps sat out in the sun too long.
Sharing a drink at the bar with JJ, I tell him about the Osprey story I am writing, in which he plays a major part. I tell him I need some genuine boys’ and girls’ names for the Gambian parts of the story, and he writes them in my note-book for me. They will certainly add an authentic touch to the story, so when it is published, look out for Sarjo, Amadou, Lamin and Omar (boys), and Fatou, Zanab, Kumba and Binta (girls)……and JJ himself of course!
Tomorrow is going to be a hard travelling day – borders to cross, ferry to catch, rough roads to endure, as we make our way back to Tendaba. Better get to bed now – it’s been another splendid day!
By Kayleigh Brookes on February 9, 2016
…in the winter when you’re not in England? Well, we are beginning to have more of a definitive idea!
Thanks to satellite-tracking studies and sightings of ringed birds, we have learned that most UK Ospreys winter in West Africa, usually in The Gambia and Senegal. We are lucky enough to be aware of the wintering locations of some Rutland birds. Due to her satellite transmitter, we know that 30(05) winters in Senegal, and 5F(12) has been seen on her wintering grounds in The Gambia several times. Now, thanks to a trip to West Africa in January 2016 and a bit (or a lot) of luck, we also know where another of our birds, 32(11), winters. Since we returned from our trip this year, we have had more reports of sightings of Rutland Ospreys, thanks to the birds’ colour rings. As a result, we now know where another two of our birds spend the winter months!
Firstly, we send our thanks to Rafa Benjumea, who spotted a Rutland male, 06(09), in Senegal this year! 06(09) fledged from an off-site nest in 2009. He bred in 2014 and 2015, raising one and then two chicks respectively. Rafa and colleague Blanca Pérez are ornithologists working in Senegal for the project Tougoupeul – (click here for more information). They spotted 06(09) in November 2015 when they were counting birds at the Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie in Senegal – not all that far from where John, Paul and I were watching 30(05) just a few weeks ago!
Rafa and Blanca saw 06 on three separate occasions, 11th, 14th and 15th November 2015. This shows that this particular location is 06’s wintering site, and he has likely been wintering there since he was a juvenile in the winter of 2009. Here are some photographs, taken by Rafa Benjumea, of 06(09).
The Osprey team visited this site in 2011, so 06(09) must have been there somewhere! It looks like a beautiful place – here are a few of John’s photos from the team’s visit in January 2011.
To see Rafa’s website and for information about his birding tours in Andalucia, click here.
As I mentioned above, we know that most UK Ospreys winter in West Africa – not all of them do. There have been reports of Ospreys from the UK spending the winter in southern Europe, such as 06(01), a female translocated to Rutland in 2001 who wintered in Portugal, and AA1 or “Caledonia”, a 2012 female chick from Loch Garten who wintered in Spain. We now know of another bird who winters in Spain! 1J(13) is a male Osprey who fledged from the Manton Bay nest in 2013. He first came back to Rutland in June 2015, and was subsequently seen at Fishlake Meadows in Hampshire a few months later.
We send our thanks to Rafa Garcia, who sent us his report of 1J, seen on 24th January 2016 at San José del Palmar Saltpan, Puerto Real, Cádiz, Spain!
Tim and Paul were at this site in 2008, and say it is a great spot for Ospreys. Here are Rafa Garcia’s photographs of 1J.
These reports of Ospreys from other countries emphasises the importance of colour ringing, and also shows that the awareness of Ospreys outside of the UK is increasing. It is wonderful to know more about where our birds go when they leave us each autumn, and these reports prove that they are finding suitable wintering locations and are safely returning there each year. We thank Rafa Benjumea and Rafa Garcia once again for their reports and photographs of their sightings.
By Kayleigh Brookes on February 1, 2016
The Road to Senegal : Part 2 of Ken’s African Journal
Wednesday January 6th :
It’s still dark as we leave Tendaba Camp, and begin our long journey to Toubakouta, on the mangrove-fringed coast of Senegal. First we must travel eastwards along the road by the side of the Gambia River, until we reach the ferry-crossing at Farafenni. Here, by mid-morning, we find crowds of people and long lines of heavily laden lorries waiting to get across the river on the one rather ancient-looking ferry. The river is much narrower here, and the crossing takes only a few minutes, but the loading and unloading process is quite lengthy and complicated as lorries, cars and then hundreds of people crowd on each time. We leave our bus and wander around. A Palm Nut Vulture in the trees on the far bank is soon spotted by John, and we watch its lazy flight from one tree to another, with occasional drops to the bank to pick up a mussel or other shellfish. Young women with reams of colourful cloth stacked on their heads approach us and encourage us to buy. Our group includes one or two textile and fabric experts and keen embroiderers, so the girls sell two or three lengths of cloth. I notice that after each sale they go back to an older woman dressed all in red and resting on a low wall. She takes the money and pushes it into the voluminous folds of her gown. The girls rest every so often, passing their load on to another, before sitting in the shade for a while. A hard life, reminiscent of a 19th Century London episode from ‘Oliver Twist.’ Other traders, including men, offer us biscuits, household goods, and drinks. Another man is displaying a writhing python, which he keeps in a box and brings out every few minutes to the delight of the crowd. Chris passes round his Digestive biscuits, which go down very well in this incongruous setting. We watch the ferry being loaded again, this time including a decrepit petrol tanker with ‘Danger – highly flammable’ signs all over it, and then we all have to jump back on the bus as it’s our turn to go – not too close to that tanker please! We stay on board the bus for the short crossing, and then trundle off the other side through yet more heaving crowds of people and vehicles. Phew, we made it!
Now, we are the north side of the Gambia River, and have to drive back westwards via Kerewan towards the border with Senegal at Karang. JJ has bought provisions for our lunch, and before too long our driver Alajie is pulling off the road into the shade of a large acacia tree, where we pile off to enjoy freshly baked crusty bread, tuna, sardines, and wonderful bananas and watermelon. It is a feast enjoyed by all! As always happens in Africa, people emerge from the bush whenever you stop and shout greetings. JJ engages with them and chats in their own language. I have no idea what they are saying – maybe it’s ‘Any chance of a lift to the next town?’ or ‘Can you spare a water bottle or two?’ I entertain the fantasy that it might be ‘Have you noticed the Western Olivaceous Warbler in the tree above your heads?’ but I’m pretty sure it’s not that! John points out the warbler, a migrant like us from Europe, and he soon finds a Melodious Warbler too, together with a Beautiful Sunbird. Chris D has seen four very large birds fly in and land just across the road, and soon we are all watching huge Abyssinian Ground Hornbills walking around in the grass and stalking their prey. Wow, amazing bird! Once again, we learn that if you just stop, wait and watch, birds of many species will soon be seen.
On the move again, we approach the border. We are leaving Gambia, and entering Senegal. Passports are collected, and Tim and JJ disappear into gloomy huts to complete procedures. Small hands and faces appear at the bus windows, and, once through onto the Senegalese side, their words come in French rather than the broken English we experienced in Gambia. Passports are returned with the requisite stamps, and we are on the way again. The first thing we note is that the Senegalese authorities are undertaking a huge road-building programme. The only problem is that they appear to have decided to replace every single road at the same time, with the result that the existing roads are little more than hard, pitted and rutted spine-numbing tracks, which soon have us clinging on for dear life and closing windows against the clouds of throat-choking dust. In the next few days we will become all too accustomed to signs which say ‘Deviation 50km’, or something similar, meaning we can expect to be crashing overland following lengthy detours. Nevermind : the early explorers encountered far worse. It’s all part of the romance of travel.
By early evening, the ‘romance of travel’ notion is perhaps wearing a bit thin, but spirits are definitely lifted as we reach our home for the next three days. The Keur Saloum Hotel, on the edge of the Sine-Saloum delta, provides comfortable accommodation in bungalows in the grounds, a beautiful verandah with views over the mangroves and river, a comfortable bar and dining area and a swimming pool. From the verandah, we soon spot an Osprey sitting high in a tree over the water, and Hornbills, Rollers and Kingfishers abound. John spots a huge shape dropping distantly into the mangroves, and is just in time to identify it through my ancient telescope (the only one available at the time) as a Saddle-billed Stork, the only one of our trip. I just manage to see it as it drops in. After a long shower, beers in the bar and a nice dinner, we are all refreshed and I for one am early to bed! The Osprey part of our trip is about to begin! I have to be ready, pumped up, and on top form!
Thursday January 7th :
Now I’m not naturally a flip-flop sort of person as many will know, but here I am this morning in regulation gear click-clacking my way down the stone jetty at Missira ready to leap (?) aboard the gently bobbling fishing boat at the quayside in readiness for our trip through the mangrove lagoons and out into the broader ocean towards our goal, the fabulous Ile d’Oiseaux. We have a two hour boat journey ahead of us, and it’s not long before we start to see wintering Ospreys either sitting in the mangroves or circling above the lagoons in search of fish. John is perched in the prow, long lens at the ready in order to have a closer look at the legs of any Ospreys in case they might sport a colour ring. Cries of ‘Unringed’, or ‘Black ring, left leg’ soon pass up and down the boat. Occasionally we go back to take another look at one which refused to offer a good leg view at first passing. We see one resting on a branch, but it’s flighty and nervy, and slips away before we can get close enough for a diagnostic photo. We go back and try again, this time not slowing down but aiming for it at full tilt. Same result. Pity. ‘Try that one again on the way back’ says John. Goliath Herons, Fish Eagles and dozens of terns from the island fly above and around us, but this morning’s trip is primarily an Osprey event, and all eyes are set on every one we see, just in case it sports a colour ring on the right leg and thus proclaims itself as English or Welsh. The famed Ile d’Oiseaux lies ahead, and the flip-flops certainly come into their own as we all spring nimbly (another overstatement) into the shallows and wade ashore. We have special permission to land here, as the island is part of the Parc National du Delta Du Saloum, and usually closed to visitors. Immediately we can see why. Hundreds of Caspian Terns are in their colony over to our right, many of them settled on nests, and with them are Royal Terns as well as species more familiar to us such as Sandwich and Common Terns. Ringed and Kentish Plovers run about between us and the Tern colony, and very close by a group of eight Sacred Ibises feed on the rough ground just off the sandy beach. More importantly for us, Ospreys are everywhere – eating fish on low stumps, fishing behind and in front of us, idling and resting on the ground. They all have to be checked for leg rings. There are juveniles, hefty adult females and younger males. We witness a great deal of familiar behaviour – several of them trail their feet in the water after eating their fish. They preen their feathers and clean their bills. One carries a long twig around – something that would excite us if this were April in Rutland – but on closer inspection we find that he has a fish in there as well, so dropping the twig would mean dropping the fish too! As we walk in a group down the island, more Ospreys appear, and each time everyone stops and we study them closely. Nothing so far has raised John’s suspicions, so after a couple of hours on the island we head back towards our boat. Still Ospreys are flying around carrying fish, looking for a good place to land and enjoy a quiet meal, away from the cunning Slender-billed Gulls who like to steal tit-bits of fish as they fall off. Someone has picked up a delicate Caspian Tern egg shell, almost complete, and I resolve to try and get it home without further breakage. It is a rich brown colour, speckled with lighter reddish markings. I stow it away. A Butterfish skeleton is another piece of interesting flotsam, but I decline to add this to my beachcombing bag.
The island has changed in shape a great deal since the Project’s last visit, and discussions take place as to how it might evolve in the future. Of more immediate concern is the fact that the boat has become grounded in the soft sand in our absence, and Tim and Chris D have to heave us off the beach before leaping in themselves. We make for the last known location of that flighty male Osprey which led us a merry dance earlier, and soon John spots it in more or less the same position. Again it is unco-operative, but John fires off lots of photos in the hope that one might give us a clue as to its origins. He starts to examine them immediately, and looks perturbed. I have a feeling we may be back here tomorrow. Meanwhile there is much to entertain us on our journey back – a Palm Nut Vulture directly overhead, several stately Goliath Herons, more Ospreys, and Terns by the hundred – a fitting end to our morning. Disembarkation is achieved despite the tide having dropped several feet, necessitating a climb in flip-flops up the jetty wall. The only casualty is the Caspian Tern egg shell, which takes a serious impact as my bag collides with the jetty wall. On inspection it is now in several hundred fragments, which disintegrate even further as I shake them into the breeze.
Back at our luxurious hotel, cold beer and lunch go down very well. We have a free afternoon! Some swim in the pool, some wash out a few shirts and hang them outside their bungalows, others sit, write, chat or just chill. This is the life. A few agree to meet on the verandah at 5.00 in case that gigantic Saddle-billed Stork decides to drop in to roost again.
5.00pm comes around all too soon, and equipped with a cold beer I arrive at the verandah. Kayleigh is already there, composing a blog for the website – yes, we have Wifi here. Tea is being served by one of the waiters and I overhear a conversation which goes something like this : ‘Is yours the Earl Grey?’ ‘No, I asked for Ceylon.’ ‘Oh, I think this one is English Breakfast.’ It reminds me of a scene from an old movie set in colonial Africa in the 1920’s. I scribble it down before I forget.
The Stork does not come, but other things do, and I am up and down looking at Rollers, Thick-knees, Hornbills and Bee-eaters. An Osprey fishes below us on the lagoon. A few other guests come and go, but we have the hotel virtually to ourselves. Dinner is taken to the accompaniment of Fruit Bat location sounds from the thatched roof of the dining room, and Paul’s roll-call is an impressive one, done as always with professionalism and aplomb.
John is keeping quiet, but the fact that he wants to go back for another attempt to identify that tricky Osprey tomorrow is promising. Did he see the hint of a blue ring on the right leg? We’ll have to wait and see.
Friday January 8th :
Today promises to be a long and productive day. After breakfast at 6.00am we are soon out on the bone-jarring unmade-up roads of Senegal, bumping and jolting along to some woodland and wetland habitat which has proved very productive during past project visits. Goodness knows what these roads are doing to Alajie’s bus – let alone its passengers! Every screw and joint (human and mechanical) must be loosened by this daily assault. We rattle on, past signs proclaiming the glory of the grand Barra – Kaolack Road Construction Scheme, meeting giant lorries laden with reddish-brown stone and giant earth moving equipment every few minutes, and sealing our windows against the clouds of dust they throw up. Eventually we reach our destination, only to find that the habitat has been virtually destroyed by the road building activities, and so there is little point in walking and searching for birds here. We go on for just a couple of kilometres, and stop at a point where the devastation is comparatively less, from which we can strike out into the scrubland, walk around a lake, and explore some unaffected areas of woodland and grassland giving good views into the distance. As always, once out of the bus and away from noise and hassle, the birds start to appear – Black-headed Plovers, Piapiacs, Barbets and even a couple of Double-spurred Francolins. A donkey grazing nearby sports two colourful Yellow-billed Oxpeckers systematically ridding it of annoying ticks. Abyssinian Rollers pose on tree-tops, Babblers emerge from cover, and all the while Swallows, Swifts and Bee-eaters of several species fly above us. We leave the dust clouds behind and strike further into the wilderness. Just at the point where we decide we’ve come far enough, a confident Woodchat Shrike poses for us on the edge of a bush, and everyone enjoys a view. We start to retrace our steps back to the waiting bus.
Watching birds to me is often a new form of seeing – seeing beyond the bird itself into its life, its whole existence, its world. With the Ospreys at Rutland Water I can easily slip into their world, especially when on a lone vigil at an outlying nest. I never expected it to happen here, on a dry and dusty track by the side of a massive road construction scheme in West Africa. But here we go.
In front of me, in the mid-distance against the brilliant blue sky, two or three graceful hawk-like birds are cutting through the air, swooping, soaring, even hovering at times. Almost tern-like in their trim appearance, delicate grey above, with a sooty grey wash too, pure white beneath, with a black patch on the underside of the wing along the coverts, and an elegant swallow-shaped grey tail, with the outer feather much elongated, and fine, long wings…….I’ve studied this bird for over half a century on the pages of countless bird books, examined artists’ attempts to capture its design and energy, dreamt of seeing it in life with my own eyes……..and here it is. Not one, but several African Swallow-tailed Kites, coming ever closer to me, fulfilling a boyhood dream. A much loved aunt of mine gave me a book when I was about ten, with the alliterative title ‘Wonderful Wildlife of Our Wide World’ and the Swallow-tailed Kite of Africa was featured in it. The picture in that book did scant justice to this mesmeric creature before me this morning, but it inspired me, drove me, to see it one day. One has come so close now, hovering in its search for prey, that I can see the little black patch behind the carmine eye. With apologies to everyone in our group, this is my bird, my moment. Only true birders will understand that.
They pass on, in company with some Lesser Kestrels, but then more are coming from behind us, even closer this time. One in particular affords the most amazing views. I am enthralled. I am in rapture.
Emerging from my Kite world, I can’t stop talking about them. They’re from the Kaolack roost, I hear, the largest in the world, with over 20,000 recorded at one time. John, Paul and Kayleigh might go there next week as part of their extended stay. I am still hyperventilating. A lifetime’s dream fulfilled.
I walk back along the edge of the hard-packed dusty half-built highway, huge trucks thundering past at intervals. At one point, just outside a small homestead of perhaps a half-dozen huts, a small figure sits on an upturned old petrol can, with a single bottle of milk in front. As I get closer, the small figure is revealed as a girl, aged perhaps twelve, and the idea is apparently for one of these trucks, whizzing past just a few feet from where she sits, to stop and buy some milk from her. By the time I am parallel with her, no truck has stopped, but JJ has approached her and is chatting with her in his amiable and familiar way. He wants to buy the whole bottle, but she has no change, so she runs back into one of the huts to get some. She emerges again with a woman, perhaps her mother, and gives JJ his change. His purchase represents her whole stock, so she picks up her petrol can and crosses over back to the village. More women and girls emerge as we pass by, curious to see who we are and what we are doing. A few rather thin and sad-looking cows, no doubt the origin of the milk in the bottle, wander about inside the homestead. There are no men or boys about. Resting or working again, I suppose. Chris W and I linger to watch and photograph a Rufous-crowned Roller on a telegraph wire. As we move away, I wave goodbye to the milk-girl and her friends, and they shyly wave back. Another momentary collision of our two very different lives. The road-building, contrasting with the simple life of this tiny farming community, is really an allegory for this whole developing continent. Back at the bus, I look at the rather yellow-coloured milk, and JJ offers to let me have some. I decline politely. He will put it in the ‘fridge back at the hotel. I don’t think he really wanted it, but feared for the girl risking life and limb out on the dangerous highway. That’s the sort of man he is.
The journey back to the hotel is just as jarring and nerve-jangling as before, but I don’t feel a thing : I’m up there with the Swallow-tailed Kites.
After lunch I join John for a walk around the hotel gardens and grounds. Once again, by just standing still, and moving quietly through the trees and shrubs, we see dozens of small birds, including spectacular African Paradise Flycatchers, a Fork-tailed Drongo and a Grey-backed Cameroptera. Paul joins us and we discover a dripping tap at the hotel gate, a sure magnet for birds. We add several species to our list here, including the stunning Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Bronze Manikin and Village Indigobird, to name just a few.
Soon it’s 3.30, and we must be away again – our second outing on the boat from Missira to try to connect with that mysterious Osprey which just eluded us yesterday. I boldly dispense with the flip-flops this time – I’m on a roll after the Swallow-tails, and feel like throwing caution to the winds. Anyway, this is serious unfinished business – just the thought of finding a Rutland Osprey here has us all on edge, and willing that bird to reveal its identity this afternoon. We march down the jetty to the same boat, pausing briefly to watch and photograph a jewel-like Malachite Kingfisher on one of the moored boats alongside. A good omen surely. We’re soon away, and Ospreys appear almost immediately on the edges of the creeks, flying over the lagoons, perching in the mangroves. They’re not the ones we want today. We have a way to go, but we still pause to check every Osprey we see. ‘Unringed’, ‘German ringed’, the calls resound up and down the boat. A distant bird on the far side of the channel means a diversion, and the engine is switched off as we approach, allowing the boat to glide silently to within range. Not that one either. Tim took the precaution yesterday to take GPS readings at the point where the Osprey in question was sighted yesterday, and we are back there now, sidling up near to the bank. An Osprey spots us and slips away over the mangroves. Could that have been the one? We double back and creep up a convenient creek, engine again cut off, drifting in the direction it took. Is that the one up ahead, alert in a tree and facing us? Cameras are whirring, concentrating on the all important leg shot. It allows a reasonable approach, but then is away again, crossing the creek and heading away from us over the mangroves.
Then something remarkable happens. Instead of carrying on, it banks and returns towards us, heading steadily in our direction and flying more or less over us, before heading out into the main channel, where we had first spotted it. Stunned silence as photographers study their screens. Did I imagine it, or was there a smudge of blue in my binoculars as I strained my optic nerve to its maximum? At the front of the boat, John is saying nothing, but the trace of a smile is clear to see. The evidence is in his camera. The result will be revealed when processing is complete.
Already on the way back I am mentally composing our next presentation for schools and colleges : ‘The Quest for Ozzie’ perhaps? Subtitled ‘Searching for a Wintering Rutland Osprey in Senegal, January 2016.’ It could be epic. Mustn’t get ahead of myself. We don’t know the truth yet. As we reach Missira again, a majestic African Fish Eagle nods his assent as we pass. ‘Well done chaps’, he seems to be saying, ‘job well done.’
7.00 pm A small crowd has gathered outside John’s bungalow, awaiting the puff of white smoke which means he has come to a decision. Others wait in the bar, or on the verandah, hoping against hope that the news will be good. The importance of this moment is not lost on any of us. Finding a Rutland Osprey in its winter quarters without the aid of transmitters, satellites and all the other paraphernalia would indeed be amazing, especially as the entire team and so many volunteers are here to witness it. The atmosphere is tense.
Suddenly Tim is in the dining room, arms aloft, smile a mile wide. ‘It’s him’, he shouts, ‘it’s 32 (11).’ Cue spontaneous applause, whoops, cheers, mutual back-slapping, unbridled euphoria. We’ve done it, we’ve found our ‘needle in the mangroves’. Beer bottles are clinked, wine glasses raised. This is indeed a cause for celebration! Our dinner table tonight is even jollier and more animated than usual, as the full implication of today’s discovery sinks in. This was absolutely the perfect Osprey for us to discover here. His dynastic lineage spans virtually the whole history of the project – grandson of ‘Mr Rutland’ 03(97), son of 5R(04) and Maya in Manton Bay, 2015 mate of 30(05), who is, as we speak, wintering further up the Senegal coast, and parent of the 100th Rutland Osprey chick T.00! Wow! That’s quite a family tree! A ‘news embargo’ is placed on the great event for now – until the official announcement on the website tomorrow.
I recall an entry in my 2011 journal, headed something like ’22, 32, 52…….and 33?’ I had been monitoring the Manton Bay nest one Sunday afternoon in late July when the three chicks were joined for a while by a precocious juvenile from Site B, the now familiar 33(11). I remember we had a difficult time that afternoon keeping track of all the goings on at the nest, but 32(11) was certainly in the mix on that occasion! Then of course he was part of the ‘Osprey Bus’, a group of young males who returned in 2013 and regularly intruded at several of the other nests. And how pleased we were when we heard that he had ‘settled down’ with 30(05) in the spring of 2015, and was actually one of the parents of the Project’s 100th chick! And now, a few months later, we had met him again, in his winter home 3,500 miles from his own place of birth. A wonderful thought. And his choice of winter home looks to be a good one – safe, quiet, no evidence of disturbance or discarded fishing nets. One thing is for sure – he can be certain of a very warm welcome home in the UK when news of his return reaches us!
I am late to bed tonight. So many thoughts to record, sightings to list, incidents to remember. It’s been a glorious, unforgettable day. And tomorrow we move further north to even more adventures.