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Ken’s Africa Diary Part 3

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.

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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.

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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!

The pool and view, photo by Kayleigh Brookes

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.

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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.

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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.

Senegalese women crossing the lagoon

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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

Where do you go to my lovely…

…in the winter when you’re not in England? Well, we are beginning to have more of a definitive idea!

Thanks to satellite-tracking studies and sightings of ringed birds, we have learned that most UK Ospreys winter in West Africa, usually in The Gambia and Senegal. We are lucky enough to be aware of the wintering locations of some Rutland birds. Due to her satellite transmitter, we know that 30(05) winters in Senegal, and 5F(12) has been seen on her wintering grounds in The Gambia several times. Now, thanks to a trip to West Africa in January 2016 and a bit (or a lot) of luck, we also know where another of our birds, 32(11), winters. Since we returned from our trip this year, we have had more reports of sightings of Rutland Ospreys, thanks to the birds’ colour rings. As a result, we now know where another two of our birds spend the winter months!

Firstly, we send our thanks to Rafa Benjumea, who spotted a Rutland male, 06(09), in Senegal this year! 06(09) fledged from an off-site nest in 2009. He bred in 2014 and 2015, raising one and then two chicks respectively. Rafa and colleague Blanca Pérez are ornithologists working in Senegal for the project Tougoupeul – (click here for more information). They spotted 06(09) in November 2015 when they were counting birds at the Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie in Senegal – not all that far from where John, Paul and I were watching 30(05) just a few weeks ago!

Map for 06

Rafa and Blanca saw 06 on three separate occasions, 11th, 14th and 15th November 2015. This shows that this particular location is 06’s wintering site, and he has likely been wintering there since he was a juvenile in the winter of 2009. Here are some photographs, taken by Rafa Benjumea, of 06(09).

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The Osprey team visited this site in 2011, so 06(09) must have been there somewhere! It looks like a beautiful place – here are a few of John’s photos from the team’s visit in January 2011.

Langue de Barbarie (JW)

Langue de Barbarie (JW)

Adult male Osprey, Langue de Barberie, 2011 (JW)

Adult male Osprey, Langue de Barberie, 2011 (JW)

Adult female Osprey, Langue de Barbarie, 2011 (JW)

Adult female Osprey, Langue de Barbarie, 2011 (JW)

 

To see Rafa’s website and for information about his birding tours in Andalucia, click here.

As I mentioned above, we know that most UK Ospreys winter in West Africa – not all of them do. There have been reports of Ospreys from the UK spending the winter in southern Europe, such as 06(01), a female translocated to Rutland in 2001 who wintered in Portugal, and AA1 or “Caledonia”, a 2012 female chick from Loch Garten who wintered in Spain. We now know of another bird who winters in Spain! 1J(13) is a male Osprey who fledged from the Manton Bay nest in 2013. He first came back to Rutland in June 2015, and was subsequently seen at Fishlake Meadows in Hampshire a few months later.

We send our thanks to Rafa Garcia, who sent us his report of 1J, seen on 24th January 2016 at San José del Palmar Saltpan, Puerto Real, Cádiz, Spain!

Map for 1J

Tim and Paul were at this site in 2008, and say it is a great spot for Ospreys. Here are Rafa Garcia’s photographs of 1J.

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These reports of Ospreys from other countries emphasises the importance of colour ringing, and also shows that the awareness of Ospreys outside of the UK is increasing. It is wonderful to know more about where our birds go when they leave us each autumn, and these reports prove that they are finding suitable wintering locations and are safely returning there each year. We thank Rafa Benjumea and Rafa Garcia once again for their reports and photographs of their sightings.

 

Ken’s Africa Diary Part 2

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!

Sunset over the Sine Saloum (JW)

Sunset over the Sine Saloum (JW)

 

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.

Osprey and Sacred Ibis, Sine Saloum.

Osprey and Sacred Ibis, Sine Saloum.

 

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.

View from the terrace at Keur Saloum (KB)

View from the terrace at Keur Saloum (KB)

 

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.’

African Fish Eagle. (JW)

African Fish Eagle. (JW)

 

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.

32(11). Photo by John Wright.

32(11). Photo by John Wright.

 

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.

 

 

 

Ken’s Africa Diary Part 1

Whilst my updates from Africa have reached an end, there is more to come about our adventures in the shape of Ken’s Diary! Education Officer and volunteer Ken Davies was one of the lucky ten who accompanied us to Africa this year. Below is part one of four detailing his experiences of our trip.

 

An African Journal, Part 1 : The Gambia and Senegal, January 2016.

 

Thursday January 14th :

7.15am : Dawn on the Gambia River, Tendaba Camp.  I am alone on the wooden seats at the end of the creaking jetty, narrow fishing boats moored alongside. We leave in fifteen minutes. Having breakfasted on eggs, cheese and bread, I have brought my last coffee down here for one final lingering look. Light is just beginning to reveal the distant, mangrove-clad bank of this vast river, and already I can make out tiny white dots amid the greenery – herons, egrets, pelicans. In the mid-distance, playfully rolling and arcing in the river’s central flow, two or three dolphins ripple the water, while closer to me two Ospreys beat steadily up and down, heads downwards and seeking their first fish of the day. We knew we would not encounter too many Ospreys this far up-river, but these two have been about nearly every day. Relaxing for a moment, I sense a black and white shape very close, and a Pied Kingfisher has landed on the sharp prow of one of the boats, dagger-bill angled downwards – he too intent on his work. This final early morning riverscape will stay in my memory.

I walk back up the jetty and return my coffee cup, with thanks to the ever-smiling people who have provided for us so well. Back at my sleeping lodge (No.16), I find a young Gambian waiting to carry my luggage to the bus for me. She is called Kaddy. I met her earlier when we first arrived, and from our hesitant, halting conversations I learned that she is nineteen and training to join the Gambian Police Force. I hastily throw the last few things into the case, which she takes from me. It is apparently something the girls of the village do, as I see many others carrying cases for my fellow guests. At the bus, I rather awkwardly and with some embarrassment push a few Gambian notes into her hand, and she thanks me with a smile. I then remember I have a copy of our little book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’ in my bag, so offer her that as well. Maybe she could read it to her little brothers and sisters, if she has any. Once on the bus, I look back to see other girls gathered round her, looking at the book together, and having their photographs taken. A good moment.

DSCN0625 (1) DSCN0626 (1)

As the bus trundles up the dusty track and out of Tendaba, we are all strangely quiet. Perhaps, like me, everyone is beginning to realise that we are near the end of our adventure, and that this time tomorrow, after a long flight home, we will be back in England. I flick back through the pages of my dusty, sandy, at times barely legible hand-written journal, and as we turn on to the main Banjul road, I settle in my seat and re-live some of the thrills and spectacles of the last eleven days…….

Monday January 4th :

Our evening arrival at Tendaba Camp is accompanied by excited chatter and laughter amongst the young women who have gathered to help unload the suit-cases and rucksacks from the rack on the roof of the bus. I see mine come down. A very slight young girl lifts it, but immediately rejects it in favour of a lighter one, and one of her older companions takes it instead. I follow to my sleeping quarters (Hut No. 43). There is little time for unpacking, as dinner is served almost immediately, accompanied by a cooling bottle of beer from ‘The Gambia’s Very Own Brewery’, with its colourful label featuring the elusive Woodland Kingfisher. Afterwards I sleep lightly but pleasantly, enshrouded in mosquito-proof (hopefully) netting, accompanied by occasional scuttling, scraping and scratching sounds which are all part of the African night-time experience. At one point I shine my torch through the netting to reveal a green, grasshopper-like creature clinging to the wall, but in the morning it’s gone.

Tuesday January 5th :

By 8.00am we are crossing the wide Gambia River in a long wooden fishing boat, making for the creeks and lagoons on the opposite bank, where countless birds of all shapes and sizes live and breed in the mangroves. At first it is hard to know where to look as John, Tim, JJ and Chris call out the names of birds they can see, but I soon learn to look long and hard at the ones I can spot, so that I’ll know them myself next time. I love the Kingfishers with exotic names (Malachite and Blue-breasted), the Rollers (Broad-billed, Blue-bellied, Abyssinian) and the amazing Bee-eaters (Swallow-tailed, Blue-cheeked, White-throated). We move quietly through mud-lined creeks where African Darters, Senegal Thick-knees, mythical-looking Hamerkops and the occasional huge Goliath Heron regard us with mild curiosity. Suddenly we are in the middle of a Cormorant metropolis, where hundreds of pairs of these white-breasted birds (sub-species lucidus) have recently set up home. The pungent scent of guano, the sounds of Cormorant domestic life, the sights of gleaming white breasts, coal black backs and deep green mangroves, the ripple of cool water – a truly multi-sensory experience. Two rare species of Night Heron are shown to us in quick succession – White-backed and Black-crowned – and our boatman even skilfully manoeuvres the boat close in to the side to let us catch a glimpse of these secretive creatures at their nest. Another cry goes up : ‘Crocodile!’ And there it is on the bank, immobile, jaws agape, glassy eye all-seeing. We glide up silently. Still it does not move. Suddenly, it has had enough of us, and with one sweep of its great tail, and a snap of the jaws, it is in the water and gone. We see four more of various sizes during the morning. All the while, birds familiar and unfamiliar surround us. The commonest wader by far is the Whimbrel, singly and in groups, migrants from Northern Europe, probing and resting on the muddy banks on either side. House Martins in January provide a warming, homely sight. Hopefully they’ll be back in my village street in three or four months. No time for dreaming! A large brown mammal ahead of us puts me in mind of an Otter, but no – it’s a Marsh Mongoose, running along the bank and then swimming across the creek. And so we carry on, criss-crossing this maze of watery wilderness, until we see the wide river ahead of us again. One more thrill before we set out to cross to our camp. The final tree on the left, a massive bare baobab, holds on its top-most tip that majestic bird which for many is the most iconic symbol of Africa : the African Fish Eagle. Proud, erect, surveying his domain with unerring eye, he watches us pass beneath him. Everyone turns and keeps him in view as long as possible. I cherish the hope that he will throw his head back and utter that shrill and evocative cry so wonderfully described in many travellers’ tales, but he remains silent as we slide into the now choppy waters of the river and begin our homeward crossing. Half way across, the waves start to enter the boat and give us a mild soaking. Fortunately the person in front of me (Jackie) is sheltering me from most of it, so I still have my equipment dry as yet another ‘Look up!’ shout goes up, and there, perfectly outlined against the blue sky, a flock of 45 Woolly-necked Storks fly in perfect formation over us, while a smaller flock of African Spoonbills cross with them, flying in the opposite direction. As we lurch up and down, and waves continue to wash over us, that is certainly a ‘champagne moment.’ No champagne perhaps, but certainly worth another Banjul beer on our return to camp.  As the water calms and we approach the jetty, I look back. The Eagle is still there in his baobab, a mere white and brown dot now, but seared forever in my avian memory.

IMG_1245

After the briefest of rests (and that beer in honour of the Eagle), we are out again at 11.30am, this time following John on a late morning walk through the busy village and up the track, past woodland and scrub, acacias and baobab. We encounter crowds of small children, all dressed in kindergarten pink. They run amongst us, grabbing our legs, our tripods, anything they can reach. Their mothers and elder sisters regard us from a distance. There are no men around. Either working or resting, we are told. Gradually we leave the village behind, and become immersed in the colourful bird life all around us. John calls out name after name, and ‘scopes are set up to allow us to admire these stunning creatures one after the other. A technicoloured Bearded Barbet poses long enough for everyone to enjoy its splendour. Red-rumped and Red-chested Swallows flit around us, while the larger Mottled Spinetails (a sort of Swift) are a definite new and interesting species for me. A commotion in a tree behind some huts alerts John, and he has soon found a resting Dark Chanting Goshawk being mobbed by a smaller falcon, a dashing Shikra. The Shikra whirls around and around, attempting to dislodge the Goshawk, but its assaults are largely ignored, and both are still there as we retrace our steps and head back to Camp for lunch, noting as we go several more new species, including Glossy Starlings, Sunbirds and Weavers.

The team

Lunch is taken in the shade of the bar, overlooking the river. We have rest time now, but will be going out again at 4.00, for a longer walk through woodland and grassland, taking in a drying-out lake, and ending at dusk back on the road, the well-known haunt of owls and nightjars. Meanwhile, time for a short siesta back in my hut……………

4.00pm already, and we leave the road on foot to follow a path through the woods and scrub. Our friend and guide JJ has brought one of his young protegees from the village, and she is soon looking down our telescopes and having close views of the birds that surround her every day. Our first quarry is an elusive bird sitting high up in the foliage of a tree – Bruce’s Green Pigeon – a startling green and yellow pigeon on the page of the field guide, but remarkably difficult to see when surrounded by green and yellow leaves! We move on. At a point not much further on, I am waxing lyrical about three birds visible in my telescope lens at the same time – Senegal Parrot, Abyssinian Roller and African Grey Hornbill – a riot of colours, a pure vision of vibrant African birdlife. I am in my own zone, totally enthralled, talking in hushed tones about the wonder of it all. I suddenly look up from my ‘scope, and realise I am totally alone. Everyone has moved on, and there is not a soul in sight. They can’t have gone far. It was only a moment ago when someone was here……wasn’t it? I listen….but my defective hearing just picks up the gentle swish of the breeze in the head-high dried grass and tree stems. I look up. Two Hooded Vultures are circling high above me. Moving along the track, I notice the path divides into three just before entering the high-stemmed  grass. Which way did the group go? I listen, but there is not a sound. I do not panic. Best to wait…….someone will come back for me any moment…… won’t they? Is it my imagination, or are the vultures lower? I check my water bottle – still half full. I attempt a call. ‘Hello’. No reply. Louder. Still no reply. I think of taking my shirt off and tying it to a branch to wave above the grass…………..but suddenly a familiar voice as Tim emerges from the foliage and asks if I am OK. ‘Oh yes, fine,’ I say casually, ‘ thanks for coming back for me.’ I resolve to stay up with the group from now on.

We move on, stopping frequently to watch an incredibly varied array of birds of many different species. For me the birds of prey are the most exciting. A Long-crested Eagle sits in a tree, the wind gently catching its long crest and blowing it back and forth. A Grasshopper Buzzard moves from tree to tree, revealing its rufous, black-tipped wings.  At last it stays still on its perch, and John decides to stalk it for some close-up photographs. Meanwhile a Green Turaco flies past us, the prettily named Bush Petronia (actually rather dull looking) and several other small birds entertain us as we wait in the shade of an acacia tree. We move off again towards a rapidly drying out lake, where we can see Black-winged Stilts, Sacred Ibises, Slender-billed Gulls, a single Purple Heron, Wattled Plovers, Greenshanks and many more familiar waders of several species. We wait under another tree for everyone to catch up, and soon we are seeing warblers, woodpeckers and even a Lesser Honeyguide (another new species for me). Local people used to follow the calls of the Honeyguide, as it could lead them to the honeycombs in bees’ nests. As we skirt the lake, Yellow-billed Storks fly high over distant trees, whilst Kites and Snake Eagles seek their evening meals all around. The bus has moved to meet us, and people already on it tell us they have just seen a Warthog! I’m glad we avoided that in the fading light. We move back towards camp and stop in the road in the gathering gloom to wait for owls and nightjars. JJ skilfully mimics the call of the Pearl-spotted Owlet, and gets an immediate response from the real bird! It’s too dark to see now, but the Owlet calls and calls. A flitting shape is recorded as a Long-tailed Nightjar, and someone glimpses a huge Verreaux’s Eagle Owl as it flies across the road. It is the last bird of an enthralling day.

Abyssinian Roller

Abyssinian Roller

 

Back at camp, it’s dinner, roll-call, and bed. Tomorrow is another day, another country. Tomorrow we’re off to Senegal!

 

 

 

Forests in the sand

We are almost at the end of our extended Osprey trip to West Africa! We have had such a wonderful time. Our final few days have been spent at Tanji in the Gambia. We arrived on Thursday 21st January, after driving from Tendaba. The first thing we did upon arrival was visit Tanji Marsh, a great place for Ospreys, and also a place where we knew there was a Rutland bird wintering, who we hoped we would see. We were not disappointed! As we scanned through the numerous Ospreys sitting on stumps in the marsh, we came across a dark-breasted female, with a blue ring on her right leg… sure enough, it was 5F! 5F fledged from a nest at Rutland Water in 2012, and 30(05) is her mum!

5F

5F

 

We saw around 20 birds in total, 10 all at once sitting near each other on the stumps! What an amazing place!

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We visited the marsh several times over the three and a half days we were in the area. One of the birds we saw this year was 8XU, a German male. The Osprey team first saw this bird here as a juvenile in January 2014. He was sitting in a distant tree, watching an unringed adult female who was feeding from a needle-fish. The bird will be three years old this year, and should have returned to his natal grounds for the first time in 2015. How brilliant to see him here again, and know that he has successfully migrated here, home, and back again!

8XU

8XU

 

On Friday morning, we went on a boat trip out to Bijoli Island. The island is a mere spit of sand, but it was a gold-mine for Ospreys! We saw about ten in total, some fishing, some eating fish on the sand, some perched. There were also several other bird species around, Caspian Terns, a plethora of Gulls, Sanderlings, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers, and a Pomarine Skua flew past! Several Turnstones were cheekily trying to steal fish from the Ospreys as they ate, and one Gull managed to take off with the tail of a fish – straight out of the Osprey’s mouth!

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The eco-camp we stayed at was very close to a beach, and we had a lovely walk down it to a lagoon, where we saw several Ospreys!

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We also visited another lovely beach, where we stood beneath the shade of a pine tree to watch a great number of Ospreys come to fish just off the shore. One Osprey fished incredibly close to us in the shallow waves as we wandered steadily down the beach – it caught an enormous fish, and was so close binoculars were not necessary!

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For those of you who are wondering, the title of this blog is courtesy of Paul Stammers, and pertains to the beautiful tree-like patterns the receding tide carves into the sand. See the photos below by Kayleigh.

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We would like to say a huge thank you to the group of volunteers who were with us for ten days at the beginning of this trip. It seems like such a long time ago that you left us! We thoroughly enjoyed spending time in your company, it was great fun and you are all fantastic. We would also like to thank JJ, our brilliant guide, for his help and guidance throughout our trip.

We hope you have all enjoyed reading all about our African adventures, and seeing John’s superb photographs!

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