Here is Ken Davies’ fictional diary about what Ozzie the Osprey gets up to in Africa over the winter.
It already seems a long time since Ozzie left his territory near Rutland Water, but he has quickly settled into his winter routine on the west coast of Africa, in the country called Gambia. He is back near the fishing village of Tanji, where Ken and his friends saw him during their African trip in January.
Ozzie’s return to Gambia is always greeted with great joy by the pupils and teachers of Tanji School, who often come down to the beach with their friend JJ to see if they can find this special Osprey. Ozzie has become a link with children their own age in many schools in Oakham and Stamford, near Rutland Water in England. They like to watch all the Ospreys, but they are especially pleased when they see the blue leg ring and satellite antenna, which tell them they are looking at Ozzie.
Today when the Tanji children reach the beach with their teacher Isatou, they find Ozzie sitting on a sand bar a hundred metres or so away. He is not alone. There are four or five more Ospreys spaced out along the bank, and some small birds are running about amongst them. Ozzie has a piece of a fish he caught earlier in his talons, and the smaller birds, called Turnstones, are hoping he might drop something that they can run in and steal. The tide is low, the beach is quiet. The long, brightly painted fishing boats will not be going out till later.
The children love to watch Ozzie. He is their friend. They know he has two homes – one here with them, and the other thousands of miles away in central England, where he is watched in just the same way by the English children. Only yesterday, JJ had brought messages from England to Tanji School, all written on cards for them by children who had seen Ozzie during the summer.
After a while, Ozzie flies up into the air, still carrying his fish, and seems to come straight towards them as they stand on the beach. He flies over their heads, over their school and their homes in the village, over the main road that goes to the capital city Banjul, and into the mangrove lagoons that lie just a few kilometres inland. This is Tanji Marsh, where lots more Ospreys come every day to rest and sit quietly. The children know he has not gone far. They will be back another day to see him again.
Ozzie lands on a tree stump in the shallow water in the middle of the marsh, and has a peck at the fish he has carried all the way from the beach. There are a few Ospreys around, some quite close and some further away in the bare branches of dead trees. Ozzie can see them all, but they do not bother him. He does not know it, but one is another Rutland Osprey. She has been coming here for two winters now. Another one, far distant in a tree, is from Scotland. A group of Green Vervet Monkeys dance wildly across the mud, scattering ducks, gulls and terns as they go. The Ospreys do not move. A group of noisy children are walking along tracks through the marsh, but the Ospreys are used to them and do not fly. The children sing and shout as they make their way home.
A green 4 x 4 Land Rover pulls up on a hard patch of mud and some people climb out with binoculars, telescopes and cameras. They are tourists from England, and they have come to Gambia to see the wonderful birds, to enjoy the sunshine, and to meet some of the happy and friendly people. They set up their telescopes and are soon watching the Ospreys and all the other birds. They try hard to read the numbers on Ozzie’s ring, but it is hidden for the moment and they cannot make it out. They do better with a young female Osprey hatched in Rutland, and excitedly make a note of her ring number 5F in their books. The Scottish one is F93, and news of this sighting will soon be sent back to Scotland. After a while some of the people wander off away from the lagoon and find other colourful and interesting birds, including brilliant Little Bee-eaters, handsome White Helmetshrikes, and an amazing Beautiful Sunbird – yes, that really is its name!
The sun is sinking lower in the sky, and turning red. As the group of birdwatchers climb back into their Land Rover, Ozzie lifts off again and flies back over the darkening village towards the beach. He has a favourite perch at the top of an old bare tree, where he will spend the night. The tide is up now, the sand bank has been covered, and the fishermen are preparing their boats to go out and spread their nets on the overnight high tide. Ozzie is settled. The huge reddening sun sinks below the western horizon. Another African day is over.
Ozzie’s winter routine down in Gambia has not changed much since we last heard a few weeks ago. He spends a lot of time on favourite sand banks and tree perches, watching the comings and goings of other Ospreys, until he feels it’s time to go and catch a fish in the calm sea waters or the nearby mangrove creeks and lagoons. His life here is easy-paced, relaxed and calm. Most local people in the bustling village of Tanji are too busy to spend time looking at Ozzie, but the children from the local school, led by their teacher Isatou and their friendly bird-man JJ, often come down to the beach to see him. They like all the birds, and have learnt to recognise most of them now, thanks to JJ. They see all the other Ospreys, and call out ‘kulanjang’ whenever they see one – the word meaning ‘fish eagle’ in their own Mandinka dialect. It’s always a special moment when someone spots Ozzie, with his blue leg-ring and transmitter antenna showing well. Everyone wants to be the first to see him and shout ‘Ozzie, it’s Ozzie’ so that all the children can turn their eyes towards him.
The girl called Kaddy tries especially hard – she was the person who spotted Ozzie’s arrival at Tanji last winter, when Ken and his friends were here.
But today Ozzie is not here on the beach at Tanji. The small group search for a while, checking each Osprey as it flies in from the sea, or over their heads from further inland. He will not be far away, JJ tells them. Before they go, they spend some time collecting up some old fishing nets and other discarded equipment which has been left on the beach. All this is dangerous to the birds, because the tide will take it out into the sea, where it will float just below the surface and trap any bird, including an Osprey, which might dive into the water. Ozzie had a narrow escape himself last year, when he almost got tangled in a net during his migration. JJ collects all the old pieces of net and rope and the children take them away in a wheelbarrow. At least there will be no accidents on this beach now.
The next time JJ brings a group to the beach Ozzie is still missing. The children are beginning to get worried. ‘Where has he gone?’ they ask JJ. ‘It is nowhere near time for him to go back to Rutland Water yet, so where can he be?’
‘Don’t worry,’ JJ replies, ‘Ozzie has done this before. I am sure he has decided to take a little trip to see a bit more of Gambia. He will be back soon.’
JJ was absolutely right. Ozzie had indeed gone on a little adventure. Early one morning just a couple of days ago, he left his favourite bare tree near Tanji beach and flew out to sea. He caught a silvery fish, but instead of taking it back to the shore, as he usually did, he landed on a tiny island – no more than a scrap of sand, shingle and a few stunted bushes – and ate his fish there. The island is called Bijoli, a favourite haunt of Ospreys, terns of many species, and wading birds spending the winter months thousands of miles away from their Arctic breeding grounds. The sea is slowly eroding Bijoli away – soon there will be nothing left.
After a good long rest, Ozzie again takes to the air. The breeze is light, the sun hot on his back. It is perfect for soaring, circling, higher and higher, until Bijoli is just a speck in the Atlantic Ocean a mile below him. He lets the wind carry him, until he is at the wide mouth of the great Gambia River, where it flows relentlessly into the sea. He sees the busy ferry boats crossing from one side of the river mouth to the other, laden with people packed closely together, and cars and trucks.
Ozzie knows exactly where he is, and where he is going. He has made this little trip in previous years, and the familiar landmarks, perches and fishing places are imprinted on his memory just like those back at Tanji and at Rutland Water. His first stop is a vast wetland area called Bulok on the south bank of the river, with trees, lagoons, ditches and muddy flat areas – a perfect habitat for the thousands of birds which live there. Many Ospreys from Europe make this their winter home. They see Ozzie approaching, and two of them go up to meet him.
There is some initial suspicion when a strange Osprey appears in their winter territory, but they soon learn he is not a threat and they return to their perches. Ozzie is watched by other birds as he continues up river – a Dark Chanting Goshawk turns its head upwards, but it does not leave its perch on a telegraph pole. African Jacanas – the famous ‘lily trotters’ – pause momentarily, one enormous spindly foot raised over a spreading lily leaf, before carrying on with their search for food. A Violet Turaco, a blaze of colour, sees him too, and so does a Black-headed Heron, standing like a statue in the shallows.
As evening approaches, Ozzie circles over a pool surrounded by mangroves. Fishermen are casting their nets, and large shoals of glistening silvery fish are jumping out of the water in a frenzy. Ozzie moves a little further away before diving into the water and catching a fish at his first attempt. He lands in a mangrove tree to eat and rest. It is too late to go back to Tanji now. He will stay here for the night.
The next afternoon, on wooden seats at the end of a creaking jetty, with narrow fishing boats tied alongside, three friends from England are enjoying a cold Gambian beer on the edge of the Gambia River, at Tendaba Camp. In the mid-distance, playfully rolling and arcing in the wide river’s central flow, two or three dolphins ripple the water, while an Osprey beats slowly up and down, head downward, seeking a fish disturbed by the dolphins. The three friends study the Osprey. At times there is a definite impression of a small antenna protruding from its back feathers, but sadly it does not come any closer, and they cannot draw any conclusions before it turns and heads purposefully back down river towards the sea, and out of sight. ‘I wonder who’s tracking that one,’ says one of the three. He walks back along the jetty to the bar, and orders three more beers……………
It has been a few days since JJ took the children from Tanji School down to the beach, but one day he calls at the school to collect them and give them another chance to see if Ozzie has returned. Binta, Kaddy and Penda, Sarjo and Amadou – JJ knows all their names, and is so pleased by their enthusiasm. They arrive at the beach and take it in turn to scan the beach and the sand banks with the binoculars.
There are one or two false starts. ‘That’s him!’ ‘No, it’s not.’ ‘Let me try.’ ‘My turn with the telescope!’
It all goes quiet for a while. Are they going to be disappointed again?
Just when it’s almost time to go home, JJ turns and looks at Ozzie’s tree behind them, just in time to see an Osprey lift off from the top branch and fly towards them. JJ says nothing until the bird is almost over the heads of the group on the beach, and then he calls ‘Look, everyone, who is this?’
Immediately everyone is looking up through their binoculars. Kaddy is the first to speak.
‘Ozzie, it’s Ozzie,’ she shouts. She’s right. Ozzie is back at Tanji, after his little adventure, just like JJ said he would be. There are smiles, whoops and shouts. Ozzie is back, and all is well.
On one of his excursions to Tanji Marsh, Ozzie decides to fly a little further into the mangrove-fringed creeks and lagoons, where he has previously been able to catch fish quite easily. He notices that the green 4 x 4 is there again, parked on the hard mud at the edge of the marsh. It has an Osprey picture on the side. Ozzie of course does not know it, but this is the Gambian birdman Fansu, who has brought his good friend Chris to see the Ospreys. They are in luck today. Not only do they see Ozzie as he flies over and into the mangrove creeks, but another old friend, the female 5F, a 2012 Rutland Osprey, is sitting on one of her tree stumps out in the shallow water. Chris and his friends take pictures, which will soon be delighting Osprey followers back in the United Kingdom. Ozzie has a look, but moves on. He is drifting over a new creek, which he has not explored before.
Soon he is flying over a vivid green landscape of mangroves, their lower branches a tangle of stems and branches, offering cover and protection to a varied throng of birds, mammals and reptiles. A few step out cautiously onto the muddy edges of the creek. Suddenly he is 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 sight of their gleaming white breasts, coal black backs, the deep green mangroves, the ripple of cool water – a truly multi-sensory experience. Ozzie flies on, ignoring the Cormorants’ caterwauling. He notices the azure and orange flicks as tiny Malachite and Blue-breasted Kingfishers dart about after tiny fish, while Rollers of three species (Broad-billed, Blue-bellied and Abyssinian) and a similar array of Bee-eaters (Swallow-tailed, Blue-cheeked and White-throated) fly out into the cloudless blue sky over the water in search of insect prey before returning with it to a convenient top branch of an emergent tree on the bank.
Ozzie’s superb eyesight means he misses nothing as he flies deeper into the limitless mangrove covered landscape. Even the rare and subtly camouflaged Night Herons (White-backed and Black-crowned) are seen by him as they creep secretively among the lower branches. A Marsh Mongoose freezes as the shadow of the raptor passes over. He need not have worried – Ozzie is not interested in him. Whimbrel call from the muddy edges. House Martins eagerly pursue insects above the lagoons. Maybe they too are from Rutland, and know this is one bird of prey that will not bother them.
And so he carries on, weaving his way through this maze of watery wilderness in the heat of the African day. Time for a fish. He comes down lower, studying the waters below him. These creeks teem with fish, and it does not take him long to find a shoal and select his prey. He is on the verge of a dive…..when something suddenly distracts him and he hurries on, rounding the next curve in the creek before slowing again to a more leisurely pace.
His keen eye had detected a shape on the topmost branch of a huge spectacular tree, emerging from the canopy of the mangroves. The tree is a remarkable baobab, maybe a thousand years old, rising majestically from a single massive trunk, branches reaching out like arms on all sides. On its topmost tip sits a bird which for many is the most iconic symbol of Africa : the African Fish Eagle. Proud, erect, surveying his domain with unerring eye, he has watched Ozzie approach, waiting for him to dive and catch a fish. And then, if Ozzie had been successful, he would have left his perch and pursued the smaller bird, rapidly overtaking him on his more powerful wings, and forcing him to drop his catch. A free meal for an Eagle. But Ozzie is wise. He aborted his dive, and will wait until he is over another creek without an attendant Fish Eagle. The Eagle resumes his vigil. If no fish-carrying Osprey passes by, he will fish for himself later on.
Ozzie catches a fish at the next opportunity and is still carrying it, looking for a quiet perch on which to eat, when a long log-like shape in the water attracts his attention. Could he land on it and have a rest? He flies down to inspect it, and then flaps up again in haste. Crocodiles! And there are more on the bank, immobile, jaws agape, glassy eyes all-seeing. Suddenly, the largest one sweeps its great tail, thrashes the water, and is gone. The others follow, accompanied by wild cries from the terns, egrets and Whimbrel all around. Ozzie finds a tree, rests, and then eats his fish.
It’s time to turn for home and the familiar roosting tree at the back of Tanji beach. As late afternoon turns to evening, many birds are coming into the mangroves for the night. A flock of Woolly-necked Storks cross the sky in formation, while a smaller group of African Spoonbills drop in from the north. The Fish Eagle is still in his baobab tree. A group of five Black-crowned Cranes fly in low, seeking refuge as dusk gathers, and a solitary Goliath Heron, as tall as a man, keeps still and quiet in the shallow water. Ozzie passes on. Nearly home now.
Ozzie and all the other birds and animals in the world live their lives unfettered by politics, race, educational opportunity, religion or geographical boundary, but their prosperity and future survival can be affected by decisions taken by men and women in positions of power.
Goodnight Ozzie, Fansu, JJ and everyone in Gambia. Stay safe.
Over the last week or so, anyone watching the wintering Ospreys in West Africa might have noticed a slight change in their behaviour. They seem a little more nervous, more active and alert, chasing around the beaches and lagoons more hurriedly than earlier in the winter. Even Ozzie himself, usually so calm and unruffled, is tense on his perch, uneasy, wary, on edge. What could it be that is causing this change?
Could it be anything to do with the group of ten visitors from England, who have been touring around Gambia and Senegal for the past week or so, checking out every single Osprey they see? Maybe the noise of the little outboard engine on their flimsy fishing boat has disturbed the peace of the lagoons? Or the glint of lenses and the rapid rattle of camera shutters have maybe become annoying to the Ospreys? No, the Ospreys always ignore these intrusions into their watery world, merely looking with disdain and disinterest at these odd beings and their weird habits.
Wait a minute. Some of the other birds on Tanji beach are behaving strangely too. Sandwich Terns are high in the air, circling, calling. Nervous flocks of wading birds alight momentarily on the tide edge, but then are off again, glinting in the light, turning and twisting. Further back, above the green undergrowth, a few primrose Yellow Wagtails dance in the air, a Sedge Warbler climbs a reed and descends rapidly, and a Nightingale suddenly bursts into haunting, captivating song! There is magic in the air!
A long time ago, an American poet called Walt Whitman wrote a line which seems just perfect for today :
‘….you are call’d by an irrestible call to depart…..’
Of course, that’s what it is! All these birds have received the call, and they’re getting ready, all in their own time and in their own way, to begin their long journeys northwards to their breeding grounds. They can feel it – that restlessness birds feel before they migrate, the general unease, the bristling, of a creature about to embark on a journey. Wildebeest in the Serengeti, Caribou in Northern Canada, the great whales in the oceans and the clouds of Monarch butterflies in Mexico – this restlessness touches them all. We humans feel it too – have you never felt the anticipation, the excitement, in the days before a holiday? Today, here on the coast of Western Africa, it is almost palpable. Every migratory creature on this beach, in the nearby lagoons and the tangled forests, is sensing the approach of the great journey ahead.
Not all the birds are affected. The Pelicans continue to float around the shallows like stately Spanish galleons, unperturbed by the excitement around them. They are happy to stay where they are. The Caspian Terns are far too busy preparing their nests and eggs on nearby islands to take any notice of their smaller relatives preparing to leave the area. Even some of the Ospreys – the younger ones who only arrived here in Africa last autumn, or maybe the autumn before – still sit on the sand banks, impassive, calm, napping. They will stay throughout the seasons for another year or two – until they too receive the call to return to their European homeland.
For the group of ten enthusiasts from Rutland Water, their winter Osprey Odyssey in West Africa is nearly over too, and this morning they are gathering for the last time at their wonderful eco-retreat on the coast of southern Gambia*. A few walk down to the observation tower in the grounds, overlooking the thick undergrowth, for last encounters with such African jewels as the White-crowned Robin Chat and the Blue-bellied Roller, just two of the 225 different species that have been encountered over the past ten days. For some, this might be the last time they have the opportunity to study these birds at close quarters, and it is tempting to linger. We say fond farewells to our charming hosts, who gather at the gate to wave us off, and make for the airport. We think of Ozzie and the other Ospreys too – another few weeks and they will be following us. We need to get home and prepare for their return!
One further parallel between our journey back to England and that of the Ospreys. Once on the ‘plane, the Captain comes over the intercom to say that owing to flight regulations and the need for refuelling, we will need to land briefly at Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. A general groan is audible from the passengers, but at least one person is pleased : wasn’t it one of our original translocated Ospreys, 09(98), who, after being fitted with satellite tracking equipment quite late in his life, found himself on one return migration being blown out into the Atlantic towards the Canaries? For 24 hours his life was despaired of as he was forced further and further off course by the unrelenting gale, and his tracking data made very grim reading for everyone.
Our ‘plane leaves Gambia behind. From my window seat I look down on the coastal islands off Senegal, including the fabulous Île d’Oiseaux, where we were walking barefoot on the sand, surrounded by Ospreys and Terns, just a few days ago. A story-book ‘Treasure Island’ adventure. The green and watery landscape of Senegal gives way to the harsher, brown features of Mauritania, and then we climb so high that all I can see is an expanse of rugged ridges and dried river valleys. Our Ospreys, including Ozzie, will be crossing this under their own power soon. Mentally I wish them all well.
Suddenly I am conscious that our flight has veered north-westward, and we are heading off towards Gran Canaria. We are over Ocean again, just as 09(98) was when the gale carried him off course all those years ago. Our pilot does not have to battle the wind, as 09 did, and we make a smooth landing. The doors are opened. The cool night air is refreshing. Ospreys used to inhabit the rocky coastlines of all these volcanic Atlantic islands, but sadly only the occasional pair breed on the cliffs now.The ‘plane is refuelled, a new crew takes over, and we are soon airborne again. 09 had no chance to rest, or refuel. Once the wind dropped, he had to turn immediately and try to get back on course for Morocco, Spain, France…….and Rutland Water! As our ‘plane follows the same route more or less exactly, I am with 09 in the air, a dream-like fantasy of Osprey flight and survival. When I wake up, we are over the English Channel and almost at journey’s end.
And now we wait. Ozzie and the other Ospreys, together with countless millions of other birds of so many species, will be heading our way soon as the world turns and the magic of migration begins. And then it will be time to start writing ‘Ozzie’s Summer Diary’ again.
Photos;, John Wright, Kayleigh Brookes and Jackie Murray
*Footsteps Eco Lodge, Gunjur, The Gambia. Highly recommended.