Ken’s Africa Diary – Days 4 and 5

In today’s diary, volunteer Ken Davies recounts the search for a Rutland Osprey in The Gambia…

Friday 17th January :

Did I ever in my wildest dreams think I would be pushing open the shutters onto a West African early morning like this? The lush vegetation is just stirring in the breeze, the Ocean is pounding the shore, and my terrace is the ideal watching and listening post as the Bulbuls burble, the Babblers babble, and the lithe little Sunbirds flit around. An occasional Osprey flies along the beach in the early light. I bring a chair out and sit for a while. I can afford a leisurely start this morning, as breakfast is not till 8.00, but there is still an air of excitement all around, since today we will begin the search for 5F(12) at Tanji Marsh. This Rutland female Osprey has been seen and photographed recently by our friend Chris Wood, so hopes are high that we might be able to find her in the same area.
Before that, JJ and Alhagie arrive in the bus to take Tim and the two Bills into Banjul, where they are to finalise the purchase and setting up of two desk-top computers in schools at Kartong and Tanji, with funds generously donated by Melton Mowbray Rotary Club. Much of the background work has already been done, but it is essential that the final details are ironed out this morning, to ensure that the schools get maximum benefit from this initiative. It will in effect double the number of computers in each school, and, with the addition of an internet connection, will enable them to take a full and active part in the Flyways Project and World Osprey Week in March.

Alhagie has brought his daughter Awa to spend the morning with Linda at Sandele. Awa is a 22 year old student, and Linda has been sponsoring her through her first year at College, where she is studying Business Administration. They have never met before, so this is quite a moment, and they are both clearly delighted to see one another. Awa greets us all individually at breakfast and talks animatedly with Linda about what she has been doing. They are planning to visit a nearby Reptile Farm this morning, and then watch a demonstration of jewellery-making by a young silver-smith who lives and works at Sandele, before joining us all for lunch.

Linda Jones meets Awa for the first time at Sandele

Linda Jones meets Awa for the first time at Sandele

Meanwhile I return to my terrace for half an hour before a planned walk along the beach to the point. I have brought a book with me called ‘In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’, but it occurs to me that a book about the quest for an allegedly extinct bird may not be an appropriate choice of reading material as we begin our search for 5F! I don’t want to jinx the search, so I lay the book aside and meet up with a few others for the morning beach walk. There are constant stops to check Ospreys for rings, but all are unringed this morning. On the landward side of the beach, Lavender Waxbills and Yellow-crowned Gonoleks provide colourful diversions, and a Harrier Hawk is again prying into the bark of nearby palms. Paul photographs a sitting Blue-bellied Roller, but is then accosted by a local juice-seller, who seems to think the bird is his own personal property and now demands that Paul buys a drink from him in return for the photo! Paul explains that wildlife is owned by no individual, but is part of the heritage of the global community………or words to that effect! Meanwhile, Louise jogs past us, barefoot in the shallow breakers, up the point and back again. Roy has gone way ahead on his own, as Ospreys are circling beyond the point, but he turns and returns towards us after encountering a group of bulls on the beach, which are fighting over the rights to a cow. One bull is pouring blood from an ugly would, so Roy has decided not to try and pass them in case they decided to vent their ire on a man in a red-checked shirt! We all make our way back, and on the way meet two British women and their dogs resting on a log. The elder woman has lived in various parts of Africa for forty eight years, and has just returned to The Gambia after a brief (and cold!) visit to the UK for Christmas. She now runs a duck farm, while the other woman (her daughter) is setting up another business breeding bees and producing honey. We explain why we are here and then leave them to their morning rest. I think back to the early pioneers such as Elspeth Huxley and her family, who over a hundred years ago set out to establish coffee plantations in East Africa. She described her experiences in ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’. Hopefully the paternalistic and colonial attitudes prevalent in those times are now replaced with more enlightened approaches to the local people and wildlife.

11.15am : Under the leaf-bedecked roof of a shack on the beach, and sheltered from the burning sun, I am sitting on a wooden bed with a cold drink and scanning out at sea. A few others from our group are here too, resting, reading or sun-bathing. A few decide to go into the sea for a swim. A pack of Hooded Vultures and a few Yellow-billed Kites circle over them, but decide not to investigate. At 11.24 I hear a call behind me and turn to see a red and black bird, with a brilliant yellow head, on the fence just a few yards from me! A Yellow-crowned Gonolek in all its glory. It flicks and turns, revealing every aspect of its vivid plumage. I decide not to wake the sleepers, or disturb the readers. This was my private moment.

During lunch Tim and the Bills return from their computer-buying mission. Amazing progress has been made, and, if all goes to plan, the computers will be delivered to Kartong and Tanji schools in time for our visits there in the next few days. This is indeed excellent news, and yet another developing facet of the Project.

At last it is time to set out for Tanji marshes, and begin the search for 5F. When we come to a halt after a bumpy ride down a rutted track, John and Tim creep carefully along the edges of the marsh, so as not to disturb any Ospreys sitting out on the muddy surface, and they gesture to us when it is safe to move forwards. There are indeed Ospreys here, some sitting on stumps, a couple with fish, and new ones flying in and out all the time. There are thousands of other birds too – Pelicans, Terns, Gulls and Waders everywhere. Each Osprey is studied in every detail. The heat haze makes life difficult when trying to view the more distant ones, but if 5F had been there, we would have seen her. There is one ‘false alarm’, when an Osprey with the correct ring formation is spotted not too far away – colour ring right leg, silver ring left leg – but after a great deal of viewing from various angles, she is identified as F93, a German-ringed Osprey which the team has seen before here on previous visits. It just goes to show how careful we have to be – we have to be 100% certain. We wait. As the sun starts to sink, more Ospreys come in from the sea (a few kilometres away) with fish, or just come in to roost. There are no more with rings. For the team, it has been a frustrating afternoon, but for me it has been riveting – I’ve concentrated so hard for four and a half hours non-stop, just like a regular shift at Site B back home! Eventually we walk back across the mud to our bus, and when almost there, Chris calls out ‘White Helmetshrikes’ and about six of these showy, active birds flit past, black and white plumage conspicuous in the setting sun, and crests erect as they land momentarily against the sky in the tree-tops. African birds have this uncanny knack of appearing unexpectedly. Some consolation for not seeing our own Rutland Osprey this evening.

Searching for a Rutland Osprey at Tanji

Searching for a Rutland Osprey at Tanji

Dinner tonight is a little subdued, but hey! a lot of good things have happened today! The computer purchases have gone well – the two Bills celebrate with a bottle of Pearly Bay wine (African of course!), and Linda has enjoyed her half-day with Awa. I sit back and enjoy the talk around the table. Roy has tales from around the globe from Fair Isle to Mongolia. He is talking about Scottish Osprey rings he has been sent which have been recovered from the stomachs of crocodiles in Africa, and he has noticed that Ospreys fishing in inland waters here do not linger in the water when they have latched on to a fish (as they do back home), but they’re straight in and out. They must know that danger lurks beneath the surface. Another little nugget in the note-book.

By 9.45pm I’m back in the room , writing up notes, compiling bird records, and reflecting on another incredible day. We’ll be at Tanji again tomorrow. If she’s in the area, we’ll find her.

Saturday 18th January :

‘In a change to the advertised programme….’ as they say, we are heading not for Bijoli Island, but once again to Tanji Marsh to resume the search for 5F. The wind is far too strong for the small boats to attempt to take us over to the island, so the trip is re-scheduled for Monday. Let’s hope conditions are more favourable then.
Meanwhile back at Tanji Marsh this morning, the light and the temperature are very different compared with yesterday afternoon. There are more birds here too. Several of the Ospreys already have fish. They sit on stumps or on the exposed sand, making it quite straightforward to see if they are ringed or not. Through a gap in the mangroves we spot an adult Lanner Falcon settled on the ground, his rufous crown adding a splash of colour to otherwise peregrine-like plumage. Pied Crows and Yellow-billed Kites object to his presence, and dive-bomb repeatedly, but he sits out their attacks until he feels like leaving of his own accord. Then a party of Little Bee-eaters attract our attention. When perched on the edge of the mangroves they are virtually invisible to the naked eye, as their green, yellow and chestnut plumage merges with the colours of the leaves. But as soon as they rise into the air they are just brilliant, twisting and turning after bees which they capture in their bills and then descend again to a twig or low branch, where the insects are subdued by a few violent blows on a stem before being eaten. These birds represent a considerable challenge to the photographers in the party, who try again and again to ‘freeze’ one of these sprightly green jewels into a decent image.

Our main focus is the Ospreys. Four or five are in a line on the sand, a regulation ten to fifteen metres between each. After meticulous study, it is evident that the elusive Rutland bird is still not present, despite our hopes. However, on the plus side, one Scottish-ringed and two German-ringed birds are added to the trip tally. An interesting diversion occurs when a troop of Green Vervet Monkeys cavort across the sand, sending all the Ospreys and other birds into the air. Now that’s something you won’t see in Manton Bay! The Ospreys soon settle again, in a different order, and they are all checked again.

We return to our bus to find it surrounded by small boys in Premier League football shirts. We have nothing for them except our empty water bottles, which they seem to like as they can take water to school in them. They wave as we trundle away. Forty five minutes later we are within one hundred metres of Sandele and lunch, when the bus grinds to a halt! Not so much a flat front tyre as a completely wrecked front tyre which is almost off the wheel rim! No problem, no problem, we are ready for such small inconveniences, and the wheel will be replaced within minutes. We climb down and walk the last piece of the track, but not before John has drawn a little vignette of a perched Osprey in the dust on the windscreen. It is still there days later.

The Osprey bus!

The Osprey bus!

At 4.00pm we are at Kartong Beach again, for a really productive two hour walk along towards a distant village. The temperature is perfect for a walk, a cooling breeze coming off the sea. We soon become strung out over quite a distance, but gather up again whenever a wave or a gesture suggests something interesting is at hand. The flocks of birds on the water line contain fascinating mixtures of birds both familiar and strange, every day and exotic, well-known and obscure. The gulls include the elegant and pink-flushed Slender-billed Gulls, their sloping foreheads and long red bills making them quite striking after a little practice. And the wader flocks contain some rarities for us too – including the very attractive White-fronted Plover, a real African speciality, and distinguished now for us from the nearby Kentish Plovers by John’s explanation of its individual features. I study these little plovers for a long time, in case I should ever have the chance to see them again.

And then, another of those amazing special moments. A knot of people further along the beach is intently studying something further back on the sand. Then there are waves and gestures beckoning us to come closer. As we approach, I have an inkling what it is that has been found as I spot a lone, medium sized brown wading bird with a decurved bill…….surely not the lost North American wanderer we were told about a couple of days ago? It is, it is…..before our very eyes, only the second observed on the African continent…..a Hudsonian Whimbrel Numenius hudsonicus no less! I study it down the telescope. Like us, he is a stranger on these shores, and, like us too, almost three thousand miles from his homeland. The difference is that we have a reasonable chance of getting back to our accustomed habitat, but he has very little, poor soul. He has no congeners nearby with which we may compare him, but he certainly looks darker and (to anthropomorphise for a moment) rather sad and melancholy. A short flight confirms the identification – no white at all on the body, just a brown uniform back. Will he realise there are none here like him? I suppose life for a Whimbrel is pretty much the same wherever he is, as long as there is sand to probe and food to find. We leave him to his exile. Where he will end up, when the return migratory urge kicks in, is anyone’s guess. North Norfolk coast perhaps?

Back at Sandele, a few of sit around the table and have a cooling beer, reflecting on the day. The birds in the trees are especially noisy and excited, and John leaves us to investigate the reasons for their disquiet. He is soon back. He thinks there is an owl of some sort roosting there, and the other birds are objecting to its presence. We follow him back along the path, and stare with binoculars up intro the tree-tops. After a good while, a ghostly white face comes into focus, distinct ear tufts, blinking eyes opening and closing slowly. A Northern White-faced Scops Owl has been disturbed, and is now waking up as the daylight fades. It is considerably larger than a true Scops, and is certainly an impressive sight this afternoon. Its yellow eyes are opening ever wider as we leave it and resume our places at the table.

At dinner the chat is once more of all the experiences we have had so far, but however exciting they have been, our talk always returns to the Ospreys, and how brilliant it has been to see so many of them here. My own personal list of sightings must now run into sixty or seventy at least, and although we have not managed to see the ‘special one’ , how grand it has been to see these birds at rest or going about their fishing down here on their winter break….enjoying, just like we are, the sun, sand and sea in this brilliant country.

A good thought to take to bed……………..

One response to “Ken’s Africa Diary – Days 4 and 5”

  1. Daisy Ray

    Ken, thank you so much for these beautiful descriptions of the wildlife you have travelled so far to see and record. Your words have taken me there too!