It’s the final chapter of Ozzie’s Winter Diary by Ken Davies!
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.