African Diary Part 3 : Further North in Senegal
Saturday January 9th :
After all the excitement at Keur Saloum and the finding of 32(11), it really is difficult for us to leave this idyllic place this morning, and the mood amongst us is quite subdued as JJ and Alajie load up the trusty bus again, securing our luggage on the roof rack with rope and a net. The mutual support and genial humour which unites our tight-knit group at every moment of every day is one of the major reasons for the huge success of our mission so far. The mood soon lightens as we look forward to new challenges and adventures further north on the Senegal coast.
At 8.30am we pull off the road by the side of a lake, surrounded by lush woodland and tangled undergrowth. The place is alive with birds. Hundreds of Red-chested Swallows descend and skim the water, two Ospreys fly from tree-perches, a Giant Kingfisher is motionless on a dead branch overhanging the water. JJ wanders off, whistling the call of the Pearl-spotted Owlet again, and receiving an almost immediate response. We follow down the road, and soon we get a glimpse of the Owlet flying across the road. It is clearly puzzled by this apparent rival in such close proximity, and it perches in a tree in full view. ‘A small owl with rounded head, no ear-tufts and a rather long tail’ – perfectly described in the field guide! Cameras are once again working overtime, and the photographers will have amazing shots. It has two dark eye-spots on its nape – literally eyes in the back of its head! An amazing adaptation which must be incredibly scary to the small birds and mammals which make up its prey. The Owl does us another favour too – other birds object to its presence and attempt to ‘mob’ it, hopping about aggressively in front of it. In this way we are treated to superb views of many species, including the dashing male Yellow-crowned Gonolek, energetic Babblers, a male Redstart, and (another new one for me) a White-crowned Robin Chat. It would be easy to stay here for a while, but we have a long way to go, and must move on.
Two hours later, just after 10.30am, the bus pulls up again on the edge of some extensive wetland just before the busy town of Kaolack. Not too far away, 27 Black Storks are resting on the sandy surface, hunched with necks drawn in almost like human figures, adults showing red legs, red bills, juveniles more soberly attired. They are migrants from Europe. It is unusual to see so many together, even on migration. They are usually solitary or in small groups, unlike their near relative the White Storks, which migrate in flocks of hundreds, thousands even. Beyond the Black Storks, shimmering in the heat haze, a distant pink and white mass separates just enough for us to make out its identity – a crowd of Greater Flamingos.
Our long, dusty journey continues. JJ leaps out at one point to buy bread, fish and fruit for our lunch. Kaolack is a large, sprawling, noisy town which seems to go on for ages, but eventually we are clear of it and driving through an increasingly wild and arid landscape, broken up only by a few trees and bushes, the odd group of huts, and donkeys, cows and goats. The bus is quiet. People are nodding off. I try and stay awake. I don’t want to miss any of this. At 12.30 John shouts ‘Booted Eagle!’ and I am just in time to see a smallish very pale Eagle fly right to left over us. Quite a scarce visitor from Europe – I doubt if we will see another one.
Buoyed up by the Eagle, I keep watch from my window, and about fifteen minutes later I think I can see large raptorial birds circling together away to the right. Of course John has already spotted them, and as the bus comes to a halt on the verge he is out of the door and looking directly upwards. ‘Vultures!’ And there are loads of them, circling quite close to us now, in a ‘kettle’ – a several-storeyed layer of circling birds, silently surveying the ground beneath as they spiral above us. Perhaps they are homing in on a carcass nearby, or maybe using this thermal of hot air to pass from one place to another. It is a marvellous sight. And several species are contained in this one view – White-backed, Eurasian Griffon, Ruppell’s Griffon and (most excitingly) two (at least) Lappet-faced Vultures, now sadly rare in these parts. Their bare pink necks, with folds of skin (lappets), might be repulsive to some, but to me they are stately galleons of the air, dwarfing their congeners, and fully deserving of their alternative name ‘King Vulture.’ It’s a neck-cricking business looking directly upwards into the ‘kettle’, but hugely rewarding. There’s a Marabou Stork there too, massive bill out front and long legs out back. A pale Short-toed Eagle zips through and then goes into a dive – perhaps he wants to be first at the feast, which is surely not far away. As the scene passes over, we climb back into the bus with aching necks and sun-burned foreheads – yes, most of us forgot our hats in the rush to get off the bus and view the spectacle.
Not long after this Alajie finds a shaded spot off the road, and we stop for lunch – our usual fare of lovely fresh bread, tinned tuna and sardines, bananas and watermelon – the latter carved into huge juicy slices by JJ’s sharp knife. As always, local people appear from nowhere and view us from a respectful distance. This time it’s a group of youths under a neighbouring tree, and a very elderly man standing by the ‘bus. JJ has a word with him, and he waits. As we eat and drink, another White-backed Vulture flies over us. We are of no interest to him – he is hurrying to join the throng we witnessed a few miles back, perhaps now gorging on a deceased goat or donkey. Once we have all eaten our fill, the remains are distributed to the waiting old man and the youths. This makes me vaguely uneasy – something to think about.
During the long afternoon, we pass through Fatick, Tataguine and Thiadiaye, before reaching the quite major town of Mbour. The roads have long since ceased to be smooth and firm, and we rattle through street stalls and markets, dodging heavily laden donkey carts, past mosques, the occasional Catholic church, and thousands of brightly clad people going about their everyday lives. We have a window into their world from up here on the bus, and I never tire of watching these glimpses into lives so different from mine.
Not far to go now. Once we turn off not far from Nguekokh, it’s rough tracks all the way down to our destination at Somone – and the very welcome ‘Les Manguiers de Guereo’ Hotel! The Project has stayed here several times before, so we receive a very warm welcome (and a cold beer!) from our host Eric, before being shown to our very spacious and air-conditioned bungalows in the grounds. I think I’m going to like it here!
Our main purpose of coming here is of course to watch Ospreys fishing and resting in the Somone Lagoon, and just one hour after arrival we are down at the river mouth on the beach, with Ospreys flying all around us. The tides are not quite right at this time, but there are still enough Ospreys to keep us enthralled. In addition, there are hundreds of waders, gulls and terns, and John has already renewed acquaintance with a ringed Bar-tailed Godwit he first met here a few years back and has seen regularly since. It was ringed originally as a chick in Europe and then not seen for fourteen years until John spotted it here and successfully interpreted its ring combination so that it could be identified! It must have flown hundreds of thousands of miles during its annual migrations. As we are thinking of going back, a group of five Black-crowned Cranes fly in and drop into the mangroves to roost. The crests on their heads are silhouetted clearly. Hopefully we can see them again tomorrow.
Back at the hotel, another ‘Gazelle’ lager, a cooling shower, and a nice dinner. Paul’s roll-call of all the birds seen today is observed with well-deserved solemnity. Bed beckons. I enjoy the peace and tranquillity of an African night.
Sunday January 10th :
As Karen Blixen wrote in her sublime ‘Out of Africa’ (1937) :
‘In this air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart…….You woke up in the morning and thought : Here I am, where I ought to be.’
She may have been describing a different region of this continent, but I can still share her sentiment this fine morning, as I walk across the compound for a 6.30am breakfast, and prepare for another precious day with Ospreys and good companions. We reach the river mouth, and it is immediately apparent that the Ospreys are here in strength, and one hardly knows where to look first. They fish right in front of us, arcing down into the waves and plucking fish from the teeming shoals, before flying inland to find a place to eat. Others take their place, patrolling up and down the beach. Skuas are out there too, two or three Pomarines landing on the sea in the mid-distance, and the pale and elegant Audouin’s Gulls, visitors from the Mediterranean, mingle with more familiar species on the sandbanks.
After carefully examining every single Osprey for rings, John turns his attention to leg-rings and flags on other species, and in a short while has located individual gulls, terns and waders sporting coloured rings which prove they are from faraway places such as Sweden, Norway and Holland. Each combination will be noted down and sent for detailed investigation later.
As the morning goes by, local people start to open the bars, restaurants and kiosks at the top of the beach, traders begin to ply their wares, and foreign tourists (mainly French and German) claim the loungers on the sand. Turning my attention to the rough scrub beyond the beach and all the activities, I see a Senegal Coucal in a small tree, and then a Black-crowned Tchagra is revealed, its melancholy whistles giving its presence away. Turning back to the river mouth and the mangroves beyond, I am just in time to see the five Black-crowned Cranes leaving their night-time roost and heading off for the day. They’ll be back.
By 10.30am the main Osprey action is beginning to slow down, although there are always individuals about to watch. As we gather by the bus and decide what to do next, a Crested Lark wanders about on the sand, unnoticed by most people passing along the track on their way to the beach. A group of local women, some with babies on their backs and loads on their heads, begin to walk across the shallow river mouth in a stately procession, never hurrying, always erect and sure-footed as the water reaches their knees, thighs and even waists. An impressive human caravan.
A few of us decide not to go back to the Hotel on the bus, but to walk back through the mangroves, along muddy banks, occasionally through shallow water. As always this is the way to see the more elusive and shelter-seeking birds, and before long we are looking at a pair of Black Scrub Robins, the male cocking and fanning his long black and white tail. A pair of Veillot’s Barbets provide another distraction, while Prinias (I think Tawny-flanked) are in the same low bush. A well-marked green woodpecker with a red head is eventually identified as a Fine-spotted Woodpecker, but a juvenile Whydah defies accurate definition and must wait until John has consulted the fieldguide in detail. By 11.30 our group is united again on the terrace, cold drinks in hand, in my case writing the rough draft of these notes, and checking what we have seen this morning. The juvenile Whydah we saw earlier is finally pinned down as a Pin-tailed Whydah, yet another new species for the list.
By 1.30, after an early lunch, we are back on the beach to see the passing and fishing Ospreys again. As the tide changes, so more and more come along, including new ones displaying German rings on their legs. Each one is studied and photographed. By this time the beach is busy, and we become objects of curiosity for holidaying sun-seeking tourists. What are these strange people doing with their telescopes and binoculars, wading in the water with rolled-up trousers? A French woman from Biarritz approaches Sarah, and she explains that we are here to see the Ospreys – birds from Europe which in a few weeks will be making their way back to their northern homes in Scotland, England, Germany and yes, France too! I have a copy of ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ in my bag, and JJ takes the French woman through it in halting English and French. She wants to buy the book, but I don’t have many with me, so she takes an e-mail address and says she will order one after her vacation! I wonder if she will. As she returns to her lounger, I sit on a rock with JJ and the others. I ask him how he describes the Ospreys to children in schools when he is giving his talks, and he says he uses the Mandinka word K-U-L-A-N-J-A-N-G, which means any bird of prey which catches fish. He spells the word out with his finger in the sand. Tim then calls us all out into the water for a group photo, and just as we are posing for it, an Osprey flies over and he manages to get us and the Osprey in the frame at the same time! I look back to the beach and about six telescopes on their tripods are standing among the rocks, with sun-bathing people and beach traders in the background. A nice image. JJ buys a leather belt from one of the traders, ‘for a very good price’ he says. We start to walk back towards the bus, past a huge hole in the sand dug by a French family, and large enough to bury all their children, a few of whom are still down there, digging furiously. I resist the temptation to start to fill the hole in. The oncoming tide will do that pretty soon. An athletic-looking young man approaches us and introduces himself in English as a ranger from ‘Reserve de Bandia’, a conservation area just north of here. He has Ospreys there in good numbers, he says, and would welcome a visit from us. We will not be able to go, but maybe JJ, Paul, John and Kayleigh could drop in after their extended stay next week. I leave him with my business card (as always!) and we walk back to the faithful Alajie and his bus.
I enjoy a fantastic dinner, a couple of beers from the (free!!) bar, and eventually (with some difficulty) find Bungalow No. 15 in the dark. I’m recording the day’s events in my diary when a knocking at my window reminds me that I’ve managed to lock Chris out. Sleep soon follows.
Monday January 11th :
A very nice advantage of sharing Bungalow No. 15 with Chris W is that he’s got a kettle and a supply of tea-bags! So just before 6.00am it’s good to enjoy an early morning cup of tea and a biscuit. By 8.00am we’re down at the beach again, this time to meet our boatman who will be taking us into the Somone lagoons to see more of the Ospreys and other birds that are so profuse here. He appears to have two boats – a long fishing boat, and a small pedalo type craft which would be ideal if there were just three or four us. Maybe Kayleigh & Co can use it later on in the week, after we have gone. Once again the Ospreys do not disappoint, and there are many for us to check out in the first few minutes of our trip. At least two of these are carrying Scottish rings. While we are watching one, it dives into the water and emerges with a good-sized fish. It carries it off, away from us and out of sight, but we notice that a watching Fish Eagle has seen it and is off in pursuit of an easy meal. An Osprey carrying a fish is no match for a mighty Fish Eagle, and will probably have to abandon its hard-earned meal. We do not see the end of the chase.
As usual other birds abound. A large flock of Whimbrel has gathered just off an island, while Lesser Black-backed Gulls are also closely packed there. Slender-billed Gulls and African Spoonbills provide the supporting cast. The water is so shallow that our boatman frequently gets out of the boat and pushes us along, with the outboard switched off. A group of Black Scimitarbills, also known as Black Wood Hoopoes, give us the chance for a good look, my first of the entire trip. These are African endemics, long violet-black birds with decurved bills and impressive tails, well worth careful study. We drift for a long time, pursuing individual Ospreys and creeping up slowly on no fewer than five, resting on a spit of sand and pebbles. Not all their legs are visible, and John considers jumping ashore in order to get a better view, but landing is frowned upon here, and eventually we have to leave them and make our way back. It is bizarre to encounter more women wading across the lagoon, loads on their heads, babies on their backs, whilst we cruise along just a short distance away. They must know exactly where to place their feet. A fisherman casts his net as we pass, drawing it in again with several little silvery fish attached. Small silvery fish jump out of the water as we pass through the creeks, sun glinting on their scales.
A final highlight of the morning is an amazing bird spotted just outside the hotel grounds on our way back for lunch. After consultation with the reference books, the conclusion is that it is a male Sahel Paradise Whydah, flying around with its far less exciting juveniles and females, and showing off brilliant hues of black, chestnut and beige. A real stunner, and a new species not just for this trip, but for all previous Rutland Osprey expeditions to Africa.
After the excitement of the morning, and with the afternoon temperature just hitting 36 degrees C., I decide to have an afternoon off and take it easy in the air-conditioned comfort of the bungalow, with perhaps a little writing, a cold beer or two, maybe some washing of shirts and a long refreshing shower. So as some of the others return to the beach at 2.00pm, I put a few shirts and things to soak in the wash basins (yes, we have two!), open the bottle of Senegalese lager, and lie on the bed for a little while, maybe just fifteen minutes……
I awake with a start. I am aware instantly that there is someone else in the bungalow, and they’re in the bathroom. It can’t be Chris – they’ve only just gone back to the beach…..Then I look at my watch. It’s over an hour ago since I lay on the bed for a quick nap. Barefooted and unkempt, I stumble out of my room and am met with a vision…….a tall, elegant Senegalese woman, dressed from head to foot in a dazzling outfit of yellow, black and white, mopping out the shower in the bathroom and smiling at me. I have no idea what she is saying to me, but she is gabbling away in very swift French and no doubt explaining what she is doing. She points at the washing in the sink, makes what I think are washing gestures with her hands, and starts to load it all up into her basket. Before I can say anything other than a feeble ‘merci beaucoup’ she has gathered everything up and is on her way out, passing through Chris’ room and picking up a few things from his floor as well. She sways across the terrace, down the steps, and is gone.
Was that real? Am I still asleep on the bed? Yes, it was real, because my washing is gone. I look in the mirror, and recoil in fright. I need a shave, a hair-wash and a shower. What if she comes back with the washing and I still look like this? I move quickly, find a clean shirt, smarten myself up and then sit casually in the shade out on the terrace awaiting the return of my Senegalese apparition.
After a while I go back in again as the heat is still intense, even in the shade, and I sit in my cool room for a while. A sound on the window alerts me to a bird on the window sill, gently tapping the glass with its bill, fluttering up and down the glass, and then moving to the next pane to repeat the procedure. It’s a Yellow-billed Shrike. I’ve seen this sort of behaviour at home with Chaffinches. They see their own reflection in the glass and think it’s a rival bird in their territory. The Shrike is completely oblivious of me, and I can watch it at point-blank range. It’s still doing it when Chris returns later, and he takes a series of pictures.
When the Shrike finally leaves, I go back out onto the terrace and receive a surprise. There, on a rack, and fluttering gently in the drying breeze, are my shirts, trousers and other bits and bobs. Of my Senegalese laundress, there is no sign. I never see her again. At dinner that night, I try and tell the tale of my interesting afternoon. I think people believe I had one too many of those delicious lagers, or perhaps sat out in the sun too long.
Sharing a drink at the bar with JJ, I tell him about the Osprey story I am writing, in which he plays a major part. I tell him I need some genuine boys’ and girls’ names for the Gambian parts of the story, and he writes them in my note-book for me. They will certainly add an authentic touch to the story, so when it is published, look out for Sarjo, Amadou, Lamin and Omar (boys), and Fatou, Zanab, Kumba and Binta (girls)……and JJ himself of course!
Tomorrow is going to be a hard travelling day – borders to cross, ferry to catch, rough roads to endure, as we make our way back to Tendaba. Better get to bed now – it’s been another splendid day!