As I sit in a snow-covered Rutland, Gambia seems a long way away. We’re now home after a fantastic few weeks in West Africa. Here are my final diary entries from the trip.
Wednesday 1st February
The acacia scrub and freshwater pools between Toubacouta and Kaolack really are magnet for birds, and we had another fantastic few hours there just after first light this morning. We made part of the hour-long drive there in the dark, but it got light in time for us to see White-backed, Ruppel’s and Lappet-faced Vulture all perched together in the same roadside tree. The Lappet-faced, in particular, with its huge bill, made for an incredible sight at such close range. Once we got to the pools, the waders and finches that we saw with the first group were again present and this time the birds coming down to drink were joined by a few Sudan Golden Sparrows. It was also good to be able to compare the stunning Lesser and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starlings at close range. Everywhere you turned there were birds – a passing immature male Montague’s Harrier, Chestnut-bellied Starlings flittering around at our feet and a small flock of the striking Quail Finch. As we admired a group of seven or eight Swallow-tailed Kites, two of which circled directly overhead, a pair of Bluethroats suddenly appeared in front of us. Bluethroats are a scarce migrant from Europe and so it was good to see two together so well. By 11am it was really hotting-up and we headed back along the bumpy road to Toubacouta, but not before adding Short-toed Eagle to the list.
This evening we returned to the small lake just north of Toubacouta that we visited with the first group. Three juvenile Ospreys were there; presumably the two we saw a couple of weeks ago, plus one more. The lake is a great place for the youngsters; it is deep enough not to dry up at any point during the dry season and, significantly, there are no adult Ospreys on territory who might not tolerate their presence. Like last time we visited, it was interesting that there was no aggression between the young birds who were obviously happy in each other’s company. Two of the birds caught fish very easily during the course of the evening. Apart from the Ospreys, we saw a good range of other species too – an immature African Harrier Hawk, Long-crested Eagle, a pair of Giant Kingfishers and a group of White-crested Helmet Shrikes.
Thursday 2nd February
Today, our penultimate day in West Africa we headed back to Gambia and crossed the river via the Barra-Banjul ferry at around 10:30. A group of 11 Arctic Skuas, one or two Lesser-crested Terns and a couple of 1st winter Mediterranean Gulls provided a nice diversion as we made the hour-long crossing.
Once back at Tanji we headed down to the marsh for the evening where we saw two German Ospreys we now know well – F93 and 3GM. Frustratingly John and I then failed to read the ring of a German juvenile female because it was flushed by a man moving a herd of cows! A group of African Green Pigeons meant our bird list with the second group had now topped 240.
Friday 3rd February
Our last morning in The Gambia and what a fantastic morning it turned out to be. As we arrived at Tanji beach, conditions were perfect for fishing Ospreys: virtually no wind, a little cloud and a falling tide. Over the course of the next two hours we saw at least four birds catch fish in front of us, just a few metres from the shore. One of them 3GM, was a bird we have now seen on numerous occasions over the past few weeks, but another adult German Osprey, 9JY, was a new one for the trip. She caught a fish and then perched in the same spot, just over the main road, that we had seen her on last year’s trip – proof, again, that the birds return to the same place every winter. After a brilliant couple of hours we had a walk around Tanji Bird Reserve where we added White-fronted Plover, Curlew and Dunlin to the trip list. Those three species meant that over the course of the 25 days we have spent in Gambia and Senegal we have seen 272 species. In addition we have identified fourteen colour-ringed Ospreys, including seven from Germany, five from Scotland and Rolf’s bird from France. Half of the colour-ringed birds were new ones that we hadn’t seen last year, not bad considering we returned to many of the places we visited last year.
Before heading to the airport, we just had time to visit Tanji Lower Basic School where we collected the letters the children in the Osprey club have written for their new friends at Whissendine and St Nicholas Primary Schools in Rutland. In return we gave the kids the football shirts that the Rutland children have donated. They promised to wear them when JJ takes them out on their first field trip later in the year. We were fortunate to be joined by Ms Fatoumatta Jarju, Headteacher at the school. Ms Jarju spoke about the importance of preserving Gambian wildlife for future generations and said she was excited to be involved in the project. She was certainly a very inspirational lady; and one the Tanji kids are lucky to have at their school.
With that we headed back to Paradise Inn for lunch, said our goodbyes to the staff and drove to the airport. On the way there I had a chance to reflect on what had been an unforgettable few weeks. In many ways the morning had summed up the trip perfectly – we had enjoyed brilliant views of fishing Ospreys, including colour-ringed birds that we have come to know very well, had seen a superb selection of resident African birds and European migrants and then spent time at the school where our education project first got off the ground.
Once at the airport it was sad to have to say goodbye to Alajie, who has driven us around Gambia and Senegal so brilliantly, and to JJ who has led the two trips so well. Of course it was only a temporary goodbye; we are already planning next year’s trip and we hope that JJ will be able to come over to the UK for the Birdfair. Then there are all the education links to develop. This trip has again emphasised the value of education; we can do all we want to conserve migratory birds in the UK, but if we ignore what happens on migration and the wintering grounds, then we are only really doing half a job. If we can use Ospreys to help emphasise the value of preserving West Africa’s rich wildlife to the next generation of tour guides, conservationists and politicians then we are ensuring that the Rutland Osprey Project is having a legacy that can really make a difference.