Ken’s Africa Diary – Days 1 and 2

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

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

Day 1 : Tuesday January 14th :

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

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

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

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

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

Looking north from the beach at Sandele.

Looking north from the beach at Sandele.

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

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

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

Day 2 : Wednesday January 15th :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken's inspiration...

Ken’s inspiration…

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

5 responses to “Ken’s Africa Diary – Days 1 and 2”

  1. Sheila FE

    Thank you for posting Ken’s Diary, I really enjoy the descriptive way he writes. His excitement at seeing his first African Fish/Sea Eagle was very catching. I so am looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Liz May, Canada

    Thanks so much for this Ken. I have been waiting for your take on the trip to Africa. I hear the excitement in your words of a fellow seeing things that have been a dream until now. I’ll be watching for the next blog.

  3. Val Gall

    Fantastic account of first days in Gambia! Can’t wait to read more

  4. Mike Simmonds

    Ken, keep ’em coming!. Great stuff.

  5. Nan Kirk

    So enjoyed days one and two. Your excitement at being in Africa and seeing birds you have only seen in books is tangible. Impatient to read the rest of your diary. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.