Personally speaking, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching Ospreys fishing. A perfect example as to why came at 1:30pm on Wednesday, on our first full day in West Africa. Myself and a group of project staff and volunteers were sitting beside the River Allahein, which forms the southern border between Gambia and Senegal with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters trilling as they dashed back and forth overhead. Nearby a Nightingale –a winter visitor from the UK – was in excellent voice as it sung from a dense thicket. Several Ospreys had already taken advantage of the receding tide, and caught a lunchtime meal, when another bird appeared. It was an adult female. She circled in front of us; eyes fixed firmly on the water 75 feet below. Suddenly she folded her wings and crashed into the water, just a few metres away. We were so close that we almost got wet with the splash! She struggled for a few moments on the water’s surface and then heaved a good-sized fish out. As she took off we could make out a red ring on her left leg – suggesting she was probably Scottish. After the obligatory shake to dry-off she headed into the mangroves to enjoy her hard-earned meal. I’ve been lucky enough to see Ospreys catch fish many times, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one quite that close, and certainly not with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters overhead. As an added bonus, when John Wright zoomed in on his photos of the bird, he could read the ring number – it was red/white 7R; a female ringed by Roy Dennis in Easter Ross in 2001.
Over the course of the next few hours several more Ospreys fished the river, although none quite as spectacularly as 7R. Among them was another colour-ringed bird, yellow/white 68. It had been a fantastic start to our three-week trip and that’s without even mentioning the Slender-billed Gulls, African Spoonbills and Four-banded Sandgrouse that formed the supporting cast for the star of the show. A Scottish Osprey.
Although we’d be very unlikely to better the views we’d had of 7R fishing, if we were going to do it anywhere, it was at Bijoli Island. This small sandy island off the coast at Tanji is home to a colony of Caspian Terns and Grey-headed Gulls and is also one of the best places to watch fishing Ospreys in The Gambia. The trick is to get there as the tide is falling. As the water recedes, shallow reefs surrounding the island are revealed, making fish far easier to catch. With this in mind we set off in a boat from Tanji at 9am on Friday morning.
From the shoreline Bijoli Island looked nothing more than a sandy speck and, even as we landed there, the tide was only just starting to go out. The crystal clear early morning light illuminated a mixed flock of waders, gulls and terns. Among them was a group of almost 100 Little Terns, a single Lesser-crested Tern, Audoin’s and Slender-billed Gulls and a few Kentish Plovers. As we hoped, the first Osprey – a juvenile – didn’t take long to appear. It completed a circuit of the island and then crashed into the water, just offshore. It is easy to tell if an Osprey has caught a fish because, if they have done so, they usually struggle on the water’s surface for a few seconds before attempting to take off again. On this occasion though the young female virtually bounced off the surface –a sure sign she had failed.
The tide was really starting to fall, and as it do so, more Ospreys appeared, most of them juveniles. By now the young Ospreys have been in Africa for several months, but they are still some way off mastering fishing completely – and the repeated failed dives of the various juveniles we watched over the course of the next couple of hours certainly backed that up. Eventually, though, one by one, they did all catch fish. Like at the Allahein on Wednesday, some of the views were really spectacular as they hit the shallow water surrounding the island. Not only that, but all of the birds ate their ctch within a few hundred metres of us, either on the rocky reefs, or on the island itself. In doing so they attracted the attention of Turnstones – who did their best to steal morsels of fish – and Grey Herons. One particular heron kept hassling the Ospreys as they landed with their fish and it seemed particularly interested in a Needlefish that a German Osprey caught. At least three of the birds we saw were ringed and, with the aid of John’s camera, we were able to read two of them – one German and one Scottish.
By midday the tide was almost completely out, with the various Ospreys scattered around the island; seemingly very happy in each other’s company. Like at the Sine-Saloum Delta in neighbouring Senegal, where we have enjoyed some brilliant Osprey watching on our previous West Africa trips, the fishing around Bijoli Island is so good that there is no need for any aggression between the birds, especially when most are juveniles. So whether you were an Osprey, or an Osprey-watcher, there really was no better place to be!
Aside from giving us the opportunity to watch and study Ospreys on their wintering grounds, the trip is providing us with the chance to develop the wildlife education project that we set up here last year. One of the schools we have been working with is St Martin’s School in Kartong in the south of The Gambia. Over the past year our friend and colleague, Junkung Jadama, has been working with the students to help them improve their knowledge of wildlife, bird migration and Ospreys. So after a morning at the nearby marsh – where we identified another Scottish colour-ringed Osprey – we popped into the school on Saturday to catch up with the students, show them some videos of the Manton Bay Ospreys and play them a video message recorded by students at St Mark’s Church of England Academy in London who have been learning about Ospreys as part of their year 8 Geography classes. In return the Gambian students read some superb poems they had written about Osprey migration and performed a short drama about the need to protect birds in The Gambia. It was a great morning – and exciting to be linking students separated by 3000 miles all because of Osprey migration.
So, all in all, it’s been a great start to the trip. What we need now is to find a Rutland Osprey. Watch this space!