It’s always nice to catch up with old friends, and we have been doing just that during our second week in The Gambia. We know from satellite-tracking and ringing studies that adult Ospreys nearly always return to the same place each winter, and that’s certainly the case for two of the colour-ringed birds we have seen in the past few days. Two years ago, in January 2011, our friend Rolf Wahl, who monitors the expanding Osprey population in Orleans Forest, was delighted to hear that we had found one of his favourite French Ospreys wintering on the River Allahein. In fact he was so pleased that he said there was a bottle of champagne waiting for us in France. A year later we saw ‘the male’ again (the orange ring which Rolf fitted to the bird as an adult in 2004 bears the male sign), fishing the same section of river on the Gambia/Senegal boarder. This meant that on Wednesday last week, when we visited the River Allahein with the second group of Osprey project volunteers, we were going for a hat-trick. At 4pm, with the tide falling, we set out on a boat and headed towards the mouth of the river. As usual we checked every Osprey we saw for a colour-ring. We were distracted for a while by an African Fish Eagle circling overhead, a Giant Kingfisher staring intently into the water and then by a group of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, looking resplendent in the afternoon light as they perched beside the river. Having reached the crystal-blue sea, we turned round and headed back inland, towards the mangroves. As we approached the wide-section of river favoured by ‘the male’, an Osprey appeared, right on cue. John Wright fired off a few photos and, sure enough, it was our French friend! He circled directly over the boat, close enough for his orange ring to be visible through binoculars. It was great to see him spending his thirteenth winter very close to the village of Kartong, where we have made many new friends on this trip. The only question left to be answered is whether we’ve now qualified for a crate of champagne in Orleans? One for Rolf to answer, I think.
‘The male’ wasn’t the only familiar Osprey that we saw this week. On Friday we took the group out to Bijoli Island, about a mile off-shore from Tanji. By the time got to the island, just a short boat ride from the mainland, there were several Ospreys dotted around the shore, eating fish caught in the shallow water surrounding us. One of them had a distinctive – and very familiar-looking – white head. A quick check of the bird’s legs revealed a black colour-ring on its left leg, with the inscription 3PV. Like ‘the male’ it was an Osprey we had seen at Tanji and Bijoli in both 2011 and 2012. A second hat-trick. Whilst it has been great to see some familiar Ospreys, it is also encouraging that we’ve identified plenty of new birds, too. The most interesting was a red-ringed juvenile female we saw on Bijoli Island. Her red ring – and the inscription, 339 – showed that she was a young bird was from Latvia. We’re still waiting for confirmation, but I suspect that this was the first ever Latvian Osprey to be seen in The Gambia. This is not because the population in Latvia is particularly small, but because the majority of the birds from that part of Europe winter much further east. Latvian birds, like those from neighbouring Estonia and Finland usually head south through Eastern Europe and the Middle East before continuing south into Sudan and then onto central and East Arica. Some will winter in Cameroon, whilst others head south along the rift valley towards South Africa. It is rare for them to head further west and so it seems likely that our bird had got lost on its first flight south. Fortunately, by stumbling across Bijoli Island, she had found an excellent place to spend the winter. Red 339 means we’ve now identified ten colour-ringed birds so far – including four new Scottish birds, four from Germany and ‘the male’ from Orleans Forest.
Like usual, the morning we spend on Bijoli Island was one of the highlights of the trip. It is also a great place to appreciate what a vitally important area this is for migrant birds from Europe. At the southern end of the island, a mixed flock of gulls and terns held many winter visitors. A group of very smart-looking Audouin’s Gulls was particularly noteworthy because it contained at least 13 different colour-ringed birds from Spain. Nearby 100 or so Little Terns were resting on the sand with the odd Sandwich Tern dotted in amongst them. Both species will be spending the winter in West Africa having migrated from the UK or other parts of Western Europe. The fish-rich waters provide plenty of food, but they hold threats too. As we headed out to the island our boat man gave me a ring he had taken off a dead Sandwich Tern – a victim of an old fishing net. What a sad end for a bird that had flown 3000 miles from Denmark to winter here. On the same day the man had rescued a Little Tern, which had been ringed in the UK, from another net. The tern was lucky to have survived. Fishing is vitally important to the Gambian economy, but discarded nets undoubtedly pose a real threat to migrant birds, including Ospreys. With this in mind, we’ll be taking a group of students from Tanji school out to Bijoli Island next week to clear the island of old nets. Let’s hope we can show them some fishing Ospreys at the same time too. Perhaps we’ll even find an old friend or two, whilst making new ones at the same time.