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.